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What will happen to Social Security if government defaults on debt?

The current gridlock on the nation's debt ceiling could hurt the 67 million Americans collecting Social Security.
What will happen to Social Security if government defaults on debt?
Posted at 11:54 AM, May 18, 2023

Tensions are high in Washington — with only a few weeks left for Congress to avoid defaulting on over $31 trillion in debt.

Lawmakers have warned that if they don't reach an agreement, economic calamity will ensue.

It would also mark the first time in history the government can't pay its bills, which may affect whether you can pay yours.

The current gridlock could particularly hurt the 67 million Americans collecting Social Security, whose payments could be at risk should the government fail to meet its obligations.

"Social Security is a promise. It's a pact," said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, a progressive advocacy group. "What they're debating right now is breaking that promise for the very first time."

A default, and its fallout, could happen as soon as June 1. 

Earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, predicted an "economic and financial" catastrophe should the U.S. Default on its loans. 

In an interview with Scripps News, Lawson said the default would be a historic first and said there's no telling what could happen to payments.

"Some of the biggest obligations that the U.S. government has is to its people in the form of Social Security checks, which would stop going out. We don't know for certain," said Lawson. 

Should Congress default, it's possible retirees won't get their checks on time.

Jessica LaPointe, the president of the nation's largest federal employee union, says a default could also bump historically long customer service wait times for beneficiaries and applicants by another 30%.

Many Republican lawmakers are refusing to raise the debt ceiling, unless Congress makes cuts to federal spending, including Social Security.

SEE MORE: Social Security's cost-of-living adjustments not enough, report finds

But President Biden wants those negotiations to happen after the ceiling is raised, which Lawson said could erode public trust for years to come.

"If Social Security checks stop going out, ever — if we miss Social Security checks, there's no going back from that because who can trust going forward that it's not going to happen again?"

The U.S. has never defaulted, so the exact implications of what could happen are unknown.

However, experts say it's a good idea to prepare for missed or late payments just in case. 

In a statement earlier this year, the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare said federal cuts would be a massive burden for millions who rely on those payments for "out-of-pocket health care expenses, food, rent and utilities."

Over a third of recipients rely on Social Security for 90% of their income.

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