“The Social Security Trust Fund is misnamed. It cannot be trusted, and it is not funded.”
-Former US Comptroller General David Walker, July 2010.
If David Walker – who was essentially the US government’s accountant from 1998-2008 – can make jokes like that about Social Security, we’re in trouble. Indeed, as we noted in Markets and Money Weekend Edition, the Social Security Trust recently began paying out more than it is taking in. Over the next 75 years, the Fund will require an additional $5.4 trillion to pay for scheduled benefits.
Given the deplorable fiscal condition of the Social Security Trust Fund, some forward-looking Americans are asking, “Why can’t I just opt out?” Even middle-aged members of the Baby Boom generation are wondering if there will be any Social Security left for them when the time comes…and if they wouldn’t be better off abandoning the government’s mandatory retirement plan.
So can you opt out? In a word, yes.
How Do You Feel About a Horse and Buggy?
It’s true; you can opt out of Social Security…if you belong to a fiercely independent religious culture like the Amish.
Back in 1954, when the Social Security Administration first began taxing and covering “agricultural workers,” the Amish took issue with Social Security’s forced participation. The program, also known as Federal Old Age, Disability and Survivors Insurance, is a pretty brash affront to the Amish credo. Not only are the Amish famous for “taking care of their own,” but the whole concept of insurance goes against their faith. As people extremely serious about God’s plan, they don’t take kindly to a government-mandated hedge against His prerogative.
So in the late ’50s, the Amish started their resistance to Social Security. Naturally, they were quiet and reasonable about it. Some put money into a bank account and insisted the government place a lien on it. At least that way, some Amish thought, they weren’t voluntarily paying into the program. Others signed a petition and sent it to Capitol Hill. But, naturally, the IRS paid no attention. The IRS kept insisting that FICA taxes be remunerated…until eventually many Amish just stopped paying.
The whole conflict came to its climax in 1961 when the IRS went after one of these “delinquents,” Valentine Byler. Long story short, he owed over $300 in back Social Security taxes, so the IRS repo’ed three of his six horses. No kidding. (At one point in this fiasco, Reader’s Digest reported a judge berating the government’s representatives, “Don’t you have anything better to do than to take a peaceful man off his farm and drag him into court?” Apparently not.)
To the Amish’s credit, they kept resisting the FICA tax, insisting that it violated their 1st Amendment right to practice religion free of government interference. Byler’s story, as you can imagine, was a real hit with the media and within a few years the IRS caved under public pressure. In 1965, the government passed a law that allowed US citizens to opt out of Social Security.
Of course, only a small minority of Americans can legally stop paying Social Security taxes and strike their beneficiary status. In order to qualify for the IRS’s exemption, you must:
- Convince them you are part of a religion that is “conscientiously opposed to accepting benefits of any private or public insurance that makes payments in the event of death, disability, old age or retirement.”
- Have a ranking official of this religion authorize that you are a true believer
- Prove that your religion has been established – and continually opposing insurance – since at least 1950.
So unless you are Amish, Mennonite, Anabaptist or part of another very small religious sect, odds are you’re stuck paying (and receiving) Social Security for the foreseeable future. Still, we won’t fault you for trying: Look around for Form 4029…you’ll have to file with the IRS if you seek Social Security exemption. Be careful what you wish for…exemption might be the swan song for your life, auto and health insurance, too.
Learn from the Amish
Even though your opt-out chances are slim to none, there’s plenty to learn from the Amish battle against Social Security.
1) This story should serve as a reminder of what the whole program really is: insurance. When FDR first introduced Social Security in 1935, he said it would “give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.” It was never intended to be a program in which nearly everyone paid in and nearly everyone expected to be fully paid out…even though that is what it has become today.
We suspect that kind of insurance language will return. The rich – who are so exceptionally unpopular these days – might soon be reminded they are not “average” and that Social Security was not designed to supplement their fat 401(k)s. (Whether that is in any way ethical, or even what qualifies you as “rich” in America, is a debate for another Markets and Money.) At the least, expect this cash-strapped government to raise the wage base for the Social Security tax or institute a benefits means test in the near future.
2) The framework of Social Security is flexible. There are plenty of people alive in America today who were around before this program even existed. Those same people saw it amended and reformed many times in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Exceptions have been made along the way. And in 1983, under the Greenspan Commission, the government gave Social Security yet another dramatic reform.
Thus, there is no reason to think Social Security can’t be amended again, for better or for worse. Maybe the government, like it did in the ’80s, will change the rules and hike taxes, raise the retirement age and reduce benefits. Or if you are as persistent as the Amish, perhaps you can influence legislation in your favor. (Your odds increase dramatically if you own or control a large multinational corporation.)
3) Most importantly, like the Amish, expect a self-sufficient retirement. “The best revenge is living well,” the saying goes. Thus the best way to survive the plight of the Social Security Trust Fund is to not need it in the first place. Take a page from the Amish playbook and minimize your taxes…contribute the most you can to your company’s tax-deferred 401(k) plan. Better still, enroll in a self-directed 401(k), where you can invest in stable, dividend-yielding companies that might compound your returns. A few of those companies might even have a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP) where you can use those quarterly payments to reinvest in the underlying stock… That’s a double serving of perfectly legal tax evasion.
There’s something to be said for the Amish way of taking care of your own, too. Their lifelong financial planning doesn’t just revolve around their individual net worth, and neither should yours. If there’s money to spare, set up some tax-deferred accounts for family members. Not only could it empower them, but depending on your situation, you might be able to alleviate your own tax burden at the same time. They’ll thank you 10-20 years from now, when David Walker’s joke isn’t quite so funny.
for Markets and Money
Editor’s Note: Ian Mathias is the managing editor of Agora Financial’s Income Franchise, where he writes and researches about retirement, dividend and fixed income investing. Much of his work is featured in Markets and Money and Lifetime Income Report – Agora Financial’s flagship income investing advisory.