What Happened to Social Security in 2016?

By Dan CaplingerMarketsFool.com

Americans rely on Social Security for their financial security in retirement, and after a year of many changes to Social Security in 2015, 2016 saw some of those changes reach final implementation, while some newer ones came to the forefront. This year has also set the stage for what is likely to become a more contentious debate in the years to come. Let's look at the most important things that happened to Social Security in 2016.

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No cost-of-living increase for Social Security in 2016

Social Security recipients often get modest increases in their benefit checks when a new year begins, but that wasn't the case in 2016. Deflationary trends in the U.S. economy last year sent the Consumer Price Index lower, and that resulted in no cost-of-living increase at the start of the year.

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Things will be a little bit better for 2017, but not very much so. An uptick in inflation will lead to a 0.3% cost-of-living adjustment, which will take effect in January. That will only amount to roughly $4 per month for typical Social Security recipients, but it's better than completely flat benefits.

File-and-suspend: No longer available

The big news from 2015 involved legislation that eliminated two key strategies to help retirees boost their Social Security benefits. The file-and-suspend strategy disappeared for good at the beginning of May 2016, and eligible retirees scurried to take advantage of the provision through the end of April. Those who didn't or couldn't use the strategy will not be able to file for benefits, suspend them, and still have their eligible family members claim spousal or children's benefits. The other strategy, known as filing as a spouse first or restricted application, remains available for those who turned 62 by the beginning of 2016, but those who hit 62 subsequently won't be able to use this strategy either.

Social Security trust funds stay stable

Many look closely at how the Social Security trust funds do each year, and the annual 2016 Social Security Trustees Report gave some guidance on the program's financial condition. The Old Age and Survivors fund is still expected to run dry in 2035, just as it was last year. Changes to the way that the Disability fund gets money helped to prevent a more immediate crisis, pushing its exhaustion date out to 2023. Overall, the funds are expected to be empty by 2034, the same date as in the 2015 report. The Trustees noted that it would take a benefit cut of 16% or a payroll tax increase from 6.2% to 7.49% to remedy the financial challenges the program faces.

The 2016 presidential election brings uncertainty

The election campaign dominated the news during 2016, and Social Security was an issue that many voters watched closely. Following with her party's stance toward the program, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton sought to expand Social Security by offering greater benefits to caregivers and to certain surviving spouses. To do so, Clinton would have sought to impose higher taxes on high-income taxpayers. On the other side of the aisle, Republican candidate Donald Trump departed from his party's typical stance, saying he would sustain Social Security, rather than seeking to cut it.

Now that President-elect Trump has won the election, many unknowns still remain. Some believe that Trump, having successfully avoided turning Social Security into a major issue during the campaign, may seek Social Security compromises in areas like raising the full retirement age, means-testing of benefits, or a partial privatization of the program. On the other hand, if economic growth accelerates during the Trump presidency, then an influx of tax revenue might solve part of the problem without further intervention. In the end, Social Security is likely to be just one of the many bargaining chips that the President-elect will hold in order to implement his broader agenda.

Social Security saw some changes in 2016, and the future might well bring considerably more. As Social Security gets closer to the point at which its financial condition will become an immediate concern, retirees and those who expect to count on Social Security later in life will have to focus closely on policy initiatives to see if any progress gets made in 2017 and beyond.

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