"Today, the Social Security Trustees released their 2011 report on the financial status of both Social Security and Medicare. The reports make clear that both programs are on unsustainable paths, and reforms will be necessary to make them solvent. This analysis focuses on the financial status of Social Security."
Flemming v. Nestor (1960)
From the Social Security Administration's "Background to the Case":
"The fact that workers contribute to the Social Security program's funding through a dedicated payroll tax establishes a unique connection between those tax payments and future benefits. More so than general federal income taxes can be said to establish 'rights' to certain government services. This is often expressed in the idea that Social Security benefits are 'an earned right.' This is true enough in a moral and political sense. But like all federal entitlement programs, Congress can change the rules regarding eligibility--and it has done so many times over the years. The rules can be made more generous, or they can be made more restrictive. Benefits which are granted at one time can be withdrawn, as for example with student benefits, which were substantially scaled-back in the 1983 Amendments.
There has been a temptation throughout the program's history for some people to suppose that their FICA payroll taxes entitle them to a benefit in a legal, contractual sense. That is to say, if a person makes FICA contributions over a number of years, Congress cannot, according to this reasoning, change the rules in such a way that deprives a contributor of a promised future benefit. Under this reasoning, benefits under Social Security could probably only be increased, never decreased, if the Act could be amended at all. Congress clearly had no such limitation in mind when crafting the law. Section 1104 of the 1935 Act, entitled 'RESERVATION OF POWER,' specifically said: 'The right to alter, amend, or repeal any provision of this Act is hereby reserved to the Congress.' Even so, some have thought that this reservation was in some way unconstitutional. This is the issue finally settled by Flemming v. Nestor.
In this 1960 Supreme Court decision Nestor's denial of benefits was upheld even though he had contributed to the program for 19 years and was already receiving benefits. Under a 1954 law, Social Security benefits were denied to persons deported for, among other things, having been a member of the Communist party. Accordingly, Mr. Nestor's benefits were terminated. He appealed the termination arguing, among other claims, that promised Social Security benefits were a contract and that Congress could not renege on that contract. In its ruling, the Court rejected this argument and established the principle that entitlement to Social Security benefits is not contractual right."
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