Social Security surplus is projected to run out in 2033, forcing a 25 percent cut in benefits. To fix Social Security, Congress would have to find $8.6 trillion.
As millions of baby boomers flood Social Security with applications for benefits, the program's $2.7 trillion surplus is starting to look small.
For nearly three decades Social Security produced big surpluses, collecting more in taxes from workers than it paid in benefits to retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children. The surpluses also helped mask the size of the budget deficit being generated by the rest of the federal government.
Those days are over.
Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes, adding to the urgency for Congress to address the program's long-term finances.
"To me, urgent doesn't begin to describe it," said Chuck Blahous, one of the public trustees who overseeSocial Security. "I would say we're somewhere between critical and too late to deal with it."
The Social Security trustees project the surplus will be gone in 2033. Unless Congress acts, Social Security would only collect enough tax revenue each year to pay about 75 percent of benefits, triggering an automatic reduction.
Lawmakers from both political parties say they want to avoid such a dramatic benefit cut for people who have retired and might not have the means to make up the lost income. Still, that scenario is more than two decades away, which is why many in Congress are willing to put off changes.
But once the surplus is spent, the annual funding gaps start off big and grow fast, which could make them hard to rein in if Congress procrastinates.
The projected shortfall in 2033 is $623 billion, according to the trustees' latest report. It reaches $1 trillion in 2045 and nearly $7 trillion in 2086, the end of a 75-year period used by Social Security's number crunchers because it covers the retirement years of just about everyone working today.
Add up 75 years' worth of shortfalls and you get an astonishing figure: $134 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that's $30.5 trillion in 2012 dollars, or eight times the size of this year's entire federal budget.
In present value terms, the Social Security Administration says the shortfall is $8.6 trillion. That means the agency would need to invest $8.6 trillion today, and have it pay returns of 2.9 percent above inflation for the next 75 years, to produce enough money to cover the shortfall.
That's the rate of return Social Security expects to get from its trust funds. The problem, of course, is that Social Security doesn't have an extra $8.6 trillion to invest.
Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said he is frustrated that little has been done to solve a problem that is only going to get harder to fix as 2033 approaches. If changes are done soon, they can be spread out over time, perhaps sparing current retirees while giving workers time to increase their savings.
"It won't be easy but it's just going to get harder the longer they wait," Astrue said.
There is no consensus in Washington on how pressing the problem is.
President Barack Obama created a deficit-reduction commission in 2010 but didn't embrace its plan for Social Security: raising the retirement age, reducing benefits for medium- and high-income workers and raising the cap on the amount of wages subject to the payroll tax, all very gradually.
The issue has been largely absent from this year's presidential election. Neither Obama nor his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has made it a significant part of the campaign.