By Amber Wallin, Las Cruces Sun-News
Feb. 19, 2021

Social Security has been one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in our nation’s history. Most seniors today enjoy a good quality of life — and the lowest poverty rate of any age group — thanks to this common-good program.

While we think of Social Security as “our” money, the fact is, most seniors receive much more in Social Security benefits than they actually paid in while working. The majority of the money in your Social Security check comes from other sources.

Analysts have determined that only 15% of the Social Security benefits you receive come from the income you earned while working. That’s money you already paid income taxes on. Every dollar you paid into Social Security was matched by a dollar your employer paid in on your behalf. That’s income you haven’t paid taxes on because it didn’t come to you through your paycheck.

The rest of your benefit comes from the interest earned on your money while it’s in the Social Security Trust Fund via investments in interest-bearing government securities. When this interest is paid to you through your Social Security check, it’s also income that you have not paid income taxes on.

Since the vast majority of your Social Security income has never been taxed, Congress passed a law in 1983 with bipartisan support, which President Ronald Reagan signed, to tax a portion of it. Since you already paid income taxes on 15% of your Social Security benefits, you cannot be taxed on more than the 85% that’s left.

What’s more, only the highest-income seniors pay income taxes on the whole 85%. Thanks to a number of tax breaks for low-income seniors in New Mexico’s tax code, just one-third of the Social Security benefits that New Mexico seniors receive ends up being taxed. And half of all New Mexico seniors don’t have to pay a penny in state or federal income taxes because of the level of their income.

Still, some New Mexico lawmakers want to exempt more — or all — Social Security benefits from the state income tax. Many say they want to do this to help low-income seniors. But since low-income seniors are already not paying taxes on their benefits, such a law would primarily benefit middle- and high-income seniors. In fact, if we exempted all Social Security income from taxes, 86% of the value of that tax break would go to those making more than $50,000 — which is higher than the income of most working families.

Proponents also claim this will encourage seniors to move here. In fact, seniors are already moving here — their population has grown by nearly 40% over the past decade. At the same time, we’ve lost population in most other age groups. Young people are leaving mainly for better jobs elsewhere. So, instead of taking $100 million away from our schools, health care, public safety, and more, so we can give it to seniors who don’t really need it, we’d be much better off investing that money in growing the kinds of programs and jobs that improve everyone’s quality of life and make younger New Mexicans want to stay.

Amber Wallin, MPA, is deputy director for New Mexico Voices for Children.