Congress has before it more than two dozen proposals for reforming Social Security. Many proposals call for the creation of a large reserve fund within the federal budget. This fund is necessary, proponents argue, to keep the Social Security program solvent when the baby boom generation retires and begins to draw its benefits.
This essay presents a historical examination of the federal government's policy toward Social Security reserves. The historical review casts doubt on the viability of sustaining a large reserve policy. From time to time throughout the program's history, policy decisions, wartime economic conditions, and business-cycle expansions have created large reserves or projections thereof. Those reserves have generated pressures for greater spending. Congress has invariably responded by raising benefits or expanding eligibility.
These results contain an important implication for Social Security reform. Unless a method can be found for altering congressional behavior from its sixty-year norm, any attempt to ensure Social Security's solvency by building a large trust fund reserve will likely prove futile. A large reserve will lead to higher spending. In doing so, it will add to the burden of government borne by both current and future generations of taxpayers.