Captain America and Social Security

Today’s post was inspired by a question from David, who asked:

Wouldn’t [Captain America] be able to collect Social Security? After all, he must be in his nineties by now!

I. Age

Collecting Social Security benefits has a few different requirements, some of which vary according to the age of the beneficiary.  Earth-616 Steve Rogers was born on July 4, 1922, which would make him 90 now.  Most importantly, he was born before 1937, so his full-benefits retirement age is 65 (as opposed to 67 for someone born in 1960 or later).

We’re assuming that his age would be calculated according to the calendar rather than his biological age, but it isn’t 100% clear from the law which is correct.  The main part of the Social Security law (42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq) refers to people having “attained the age of X” rather than referring directly to their date of birth.  Luckily, comic book Cap has been unfrozen long enough that it doesn’t matter.  Rogers was frozen, at the latest, on April 18, 1945 (i.e. at the age of 22) and then thawed out in 1964 (i.e. at the calendar age of 42).  That would give him a biological age of 70 and a calendar age of 90.  So however his age is calculated, he’s eligible to collect benefits.  The only question is: how much would he get?

II. Earnings

Although the Social Security program had started by the time Rogers enlisted, members of the military did not pay Social Security tax.  However, military service from September 16, 1940 through December 31, 1956 is credited at $160/month in earnings, if the service member meets one of the following:

  • They were honorably discharged after 90 or more days of service, or they were released because of a disability or injury received in the line of duty; or
  • They are still on active duty; or
  • They veteran died while on active duty and someone is applying for survivors benefits.

Rogers’s special circumstances don’t quite fit any of these, but let’s assume he was either honorably discharged or has returned to active duty.  Since we have no idea how much Captain America earned during his post-thaw years, let’s assume that $160/month was his only eligible earnings.

Rogers enlisted in 1941.  I’m not sure when, exactly, so let’s say March (when Captain America #1 was published).  That would give 48 months of service.  At $160/month that’s $7,680 in credited earnings.  Because Rogers was born before 1929, he only needs to have accumulated 6 credits in order to be eligible for retirement benefits.  Before 1978 credits were called “quarters of coverage” and required earning at least $50 in a 3 month calendar quarter.  Rogers’s $160/month earnings credit would easily cover that, so he would have no problem accumulating enough credits.

III. Benefits

Unfortunately, calculating Social Security benefits is complicated, and none of the calculators I’ve found know how to handle Rogers’s particular situation.  To get a rough idea of how much he might be eligible for, I calculated the benefits for someone born July 4, 1922 who made $11,086 in 1951 (i.e. $7680 in 1951 dollars) and then $200/year through 1959 (the minimum amount needed to become eligible for retirement benefits) and then retired at 65.  The result?  A whopping $73 per month, or $876 per year, and that’s in 2012 dollars!

Of course, Captain America almost certainly continued to earn money during his post-thaw years.  But because Social Security benefits are calculated based on your 35 highest-earning years, Rogers’s 20 frozen years (during which he presumably earned nothing) put a significant hole in his earnings history.  If he retired in 1987 (at calendar age 65) he would have only about 27 working years behind him.  Those missing 8 years could substantially reduce his benefits.  By delaying retirement until age 70 he could both add more working years and earn a delayed retirement benefit.

IV. Conclusion

Captain America is likely eligible to draw Social Security retirement benefits, regardless of how his age is calculated, but his limited wartime earnings and years spent frozen mean that his benefits might not be all that huge.  On the other hand, since he can continue working indefinitely due to the effects of the super soldier serum, he’s probably not dependent on those benefits.

35 Responses to Captain America and Social Security

  1. Christopher L. Bennett

    The problem with that analysis is that it overlooks Marvel’s sliding time scale. The original Avengers comics showed Cap being thawed in 1964, but by now, it’s probably assumed that he was thawed out sometime in the ’90s or early ’00s (or in 2011-12 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). The more time that passes in the real world, the longer it’s assumed he stayed frozen in the ice.

    But then, I’m not sure his time in suspended animation should be skipped over in calculating his age. It’s not like he time-travelled over the intervening decades. He was still physically present and alive, just at a very low state of metabolic activity, his super-soldier serum enabling him to survive in those conditions for that length of time. I’d say his situation is more analogous to that of a coma patient. If someone born in 1972 had been in a coma for 10 years and just woke up, we’d still legally define them as 40 rather than 30. True, Cap’s body didn’t age or deteriorate to the extent that a coma patient’s would, but again, that’s largely a consequence of the serum preventing bodily decay. For all intents and purposes, Steve Rogers has lived continuously from 1922 to the present, even if he spent the majority of that time at an absolute minimum level of metabolic and neurological activity.

    • I agree that calendar age makes the most sense, for a lot of reasons, but I wanted to address the biological age approach if only to point out that it doesn’t make much of a difference, at least for ‘classic’ Steve Rogers.

      A point about the sliding timescale and the MCU in particular: Earth-199999 Steve Rogers was born on July 4, 1918, making him 4 years older than Earth-616 Steve Rogers. But, as you point out, he was thawed out much later. So if the biological age approach were employed. Earth-199999 Steve Rogers wouldn’t be able to draw benefits yet, since he’d only be ~27.

      So why would anyone care how age is calculated? Well theoretically the government could argue that his biological age should be used because they want to avoid paying him benefits. But I think that’s unlikely since a) the amount in question would be a pittance b) it’s Captain America fer-cryin’-out-loud and c) he wasn’t trying to intentionally game the system.

      Now, if someone started working at 18, worked for 35 years, then put themselves in stasis for 17 years (bringing themselves up to 70 to take full advantage of deferred retirement), I could see the government having a problem with that, particularly if it became a common practice.

  2. It is canon that Cap got back pay from the military for all the years he spent in suspended animation. This not only means he had income from the 1940′s up until he turned 65, but it also implies that time spent in suspended animation counts towards his age, and that therefore they are going by chronological age.

    Furthermore, Cap was a member of the Avengers for a while. I don’t know exactly how “35 highest years” is calculated, but it is also canon that Avengers get a stipend of $1000 per week (which is still okay money, but nowhere near as impressive as it was when it was first introduced; I bet in a few decades the number will get retconned up).

    Do either of these, combined with the sliding timescale, change the answer? (The Avengers salary was earned after he turned 65, but imagine that he just applied for Social Security now–would the Avengers income count towards his benefits?)

    (edited to remove link–it doesn’t seem to want to post this with a link in it. Is this a spam filter?)

    • The Avengers salary was earned after he turned 65, but imagine that he just applied for Social Security now–would the Avengers income count towards his benefits?

      Earnings after reaching full retirement age don’t affect benefits. So what matters is Cap’s age, not whether he’s formally retired yet.

      His pre-age 65 earnings do affect the answer in that they increase his earnings. Until 1957 members of the military didn’t pay Social Security tax, but he would get that $160/month credit. After that he would pay Social Security tax and so his back pay would be credited like civilian income. But who knows what his pay grade was, how back pay was calculated, whether it included interest, etc.

      (Sorry about the link issue. As far as I know links are acceptable. We certainly don’t intend to filter them.)

  3. “Rogers’s 20 frozen years (during which he presumably earned nothing) put a significant hole in his earnings history”

    Why would he have earned nothing? I admit that he was probably declared MIA and then at some time later legally dead. But wouldn’t the military have to correct that and award him back pay. He was alive and on a mission. Given the usually open ended nature of his missions it’s unlikley that he would have been declared AWOL and he wasn’t discharged.

    • Seth Finkelstein

      There’s probably even judicial rulings that cover similar situations. Maybe not SF cases like suspended-animation. But I can easily think of something like a bomber pilot on a raid over islands, shot down over the water, missing-presumed-dead, but in reality managed to parachute out and swim ashore to an island and survive for several years before being found and rescued. I’d presume they do get back pay for the whole time – or is that wrong?

      • As I said, it’s canon that he got back pay. Just google up “Captain America” “back pay”. First hit is an entry on the marvel wiki.

      • Seth Finkelstein

        @Ken Arromdee – right, I agree with you on canon. What I’m saying is that there must be “similar” real-life cases, of someone MIA, but then found alive many years later, after the war is long over (without deserting, etc – just being in an extremely remote area and unable to get back to the USA). There might even be law from times when being shipwrecked meant it was very unlikely (but not impossible) that you’d ever see home again.

      • There was speculation that not all of the POWs were repatriated after the Vietnam war (and, to a lesser extent, Korea, as well). If true, that might be a comparable scenario, as well.

  4. I was going to ask about the sliding time scale, but Christopher beat me to it, and his comments sum up mine. So on to question two: It’s been insinuated from time to time that the Super-Soldier formula grants Cap immortality, or at least a significantly prolonged lifespan. I don’t know if that’s actually canon, but I’ve seen it more than once. If so, would the government have to continue Social Security payments in perpetuity?

    • Yeah. There’s no upper limit on how long someone could draw benefits. But even if he maxed out his Social Security benefit, that’s presently only $30,156 per year. That’s hardly going to break the bank, and trying to deny him benefits would be a PR disaster.

      Since he continues to work he could always forego retiring until he thought he actually needed the money.

      • That’s pretty much what I figured. I also think he’d forgo retirement, but is there a mandatory age at which you MUST accept Social Security? If so, I (like other posters) would think that Cap would donate the money to charity or otherwise dispose of it as long as he had “employment” through the Avengers or SHIELD.

  5. I tend to think that Cap would choose not to draw this money, or to donate it to a charity. He’s always been concerned with morals, and while he’s legally entitled to this money, I don’t think he’ll feel morally entitiled to it. Social Security was designed to provide for the elderly in years where they often cannot work. As he is physically healthy and in good shape, he’d want the money to go to somebody who needs it.

    • He also needs to eat and a roof over his head. Unless those things are provided for him either through someone else’s charity, government accommodations or the like he would need them. Then there are things he might want like subscriptions to journals or a newspaper.

  6. Two more things:
    Rogers enlisted in 1941? I would have said early-to-mid, possibly even late 1942. The sequence: The war is already on, and everybody has rushed to enlist. Rogers is rejected, several times and at several recruiting stations. Finally, after a long period of trying to enlist, he gets the super-soldier serum and is physically qualified. Did that all happen in December, 1941?

    As for determining his back pay, is he not a captain (army, so O-3, as opposed to Navy, O-6)?

  7. The point about Cap’s rank raises another question in my mind.

    PRIVATE Steve Rogers drew one rate of pay as a junior enlisted man. CAPTAIN AMERICA, presumably, drew pay -= as Mr Pollock notes — as an O-3 or possibly O-6.

    Do people with a government sanctioned and sponsored dual identity file returns, pay taxes, and draw benefits on BOTH identities?

    I’m thinking about real world examples like people in the Witness Protection Program as well as spies with legends or covers identities. The first has a work history up until the ID change, then another work history. The second may have simultaneous jobs as a GS government employee AND an employee of a newspaper, NGO, or multinational corporation.

    For the sake of preserving the secret the two identities would of course file separately. But at some safe point in the future is there any advantage to the person in claiming both identities and “stacking” the incomes?

    • Interesting question about individuals with multiple legal identities. I believe The Revenent (a Batman like figure in the superhero webcomic ps238) said it best. “The federal authorities and The Revenant don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. I mean, if ONE of my false identities pays taxes, I think it’s reasonable to let the other dozen off the hook, don’t you?”-The Revenant
      http://ps238.nodwick.com/

      • Seth Finkelstein

        I’d assume he was making a sarcastic joke about “The Feds are constantly investigating me for potential tax evasion since I have so many identities”. As taken on its own terms, his statement makes no sense. Nobody reasonable would seriously say: “I mean, if ONE of my [many businesses] pays taxes, I think it’s reasonable to let the other dozen off the hook, don’t you?”.

        (I think he’d be a great character in animation, speaking with a slow Mr Rogers type flat voice, making deadpan observations about dealing with super-threats).

  8. How does Nick Fury compare? The guy was an army sergeant in WWII, somehow was commissioned as a colonel, AND presumably earned civil service pension credit with S.H.I.E.L.D… from which we can determine that A) he’s older, B) he’s been continuously working for 70+ years, and C) he’s rather spry for his age.

    • It was established in the 1970s that Nick Fury takes a youth serum.

      • Nice of him to share.

      • It has a side effect: if you stop taking it you age to death (even if you had only started taking it recently). Fury was being blackmailed for a while, until Contessa managed to retrieve the formula.

        I don’t know why nobody made it available to the public after that, though. It’s typical for comic books, though, it’s not as if Mr. Fantastic gives us the design for a flying car.

      • Actually, Mr. Fantastic makes his living by licensing his inventions, so it’s far more likely that nobody’s building them because of the products liability issue (Mr. Fantastic has an experienced test pilot to drive HIS flying car.) Can you imagine how much safety equipment is needed to make a flying car safe for ordinary people to operate, without getting the manufacturer sued because they’re crashing into trees, houses, buildings and each other?

  9. I don’t know much about the law but I had a few thoughts about this.

    First, on the question of age. I know for the sake of argument you’re using Cap’s calendar age. But along those lines the first thing that popped into my head about this was something I saw a news story about a few days ago: people afflicted with a condition that makes them physically much older than they are. I believe the story I saw was about a 16 year old who, physically, appeared to be around 80. Now, unless the law is going to treat a person with a condition like that differently than any other 16 year old, then I would assume it would be forced to do the same with Captain America. I don’t think it’s a perfect analogy but it might be relevant.

    Second, it’s been mentioned in the comments here that Cap was given back pay for his years in suspended animation. I’m wondering if that also means he owed taxes for those years?

    Third, as to the question of whether or not Captain America was receiving income after he was thawed out; I don’t know if this was ever made precisely clear whether he continued to be an employee of the government, but I do remember a classic storyline (I believe in the late ’80s/early ’90s) in which the government strips Rogers of his title, his uniform, and his shield. I believe they claim that his superhero name, uniform, and shield are all property of the US government, which may or may not imply that he was receiving pay from the government.

    Fourth, this may mean nothing, but I’m not sure if it was ever established exactly where Captain America was during his years in suspended animation. I know it was the north Atlantic. I’m just wondering if, assuming he was either in international waters or in waters recognized as being a part of a country other than the US, would the fact that he wasn’t in America during those years have any impact on his taxes, social security, etc.? My guess is no, but it was a thought.

    • 1) I think the law would use calendar age in both cases.

      2) Presumably the taxes would simply be withheld from the back pay.

      3) Yeah, Cap’s employment situation is complicated. His actual rank and whether he’s working for the military, a quasi-military government organization (SHIELD), or a quasi-military quasi-government organization (the Avengers) are all variables here.

      4) You guess correctly. Unlike pretty much the rest of the world, the United States taxes US citizens no matter where they are. There are credits for taxes paid to foreign governments (e.g. if you live in France and pay French income tax then you get a credit for that when it comes time to file your US tax return), so many expats don’t have to pay US income tax as a practical matter, but they still have to file a return. Obviously Cap wasn’t paying taxes to anybody, so any income earned while he was “abroad” would be taxed as regular US income, I think.

  10. “Cap was given back pay for his years in suspended animation. I’m wondering if that also means he owed taxes for those years?”

    Corporations pay taxes when the income accrues, but individual taxpayers have an option to pay on either accrual basis or cash basis, with cash basis being the default and most-often chosen method (by those who actually make an informed choice, I mean). Under “cash basis” accounting, income is recognized when it is actually received, not when it is earned. The most likely answer, then is that Cap will have a very high income the year he was thawed, and will pay taxes on that income that year. Social Security tax is probably more interesting, but there isn’t a law-school class that covers it… perhaps an accountant can answer (it may or may not be similar to what happens when back pay is awarded as part of a judgment).

  11. Steve Rogers DID claim the back pay on his income tax forms. It was someone scanning his tax return that lead to him being forced to choose between working directly for the US Government or giving up being Captain America.

    The point of the Avengers Stipend as income leads me to what I think is a more interesting question. Are the Avengers “Earth’s Mightiest” Tax Cheats? The stipend, the (often uneaten) regularly served gormet meals and living rent free in a Mansion in New York City would create enough income to draw somebody’s attention.

    How do you tax an Android? Or a Reigning King? Or a Space Alien? Moondragon? An American born woman, who claims to have trancended humanity and become a Goddess?

    Does a really pissed off Clint Barton get his ultimate revenge with one call to the IRS? It seems that he would have the easiest time keeping taxes up-to-date because his secret ID was always kind of soft to begin with. Peter Parker would have some ‘splaining to do though!

    What about the years that Tony Stark was claiming Iron Man was his personal body guard? I suppose he could pay a very generous Nanny Tax to cover his bases, but that still leaves an unidentified person earning a substansial income and not filing any returns on it.

    • Seth Finkelstein

      Nah. If you have a multinational corporation with professional tax accountants working for you, I’m sure you can manage to pay people a few thousand bucks a week, respect their privacy, and still keep the IRS happy. If those people don’t already have tax preparers (like the king of another county), offer to file returns for them. The IRS doesn’t care if someone claims to be an incarnation of a god – they’ve heard that before, even in the real-world (I once read a memoir by an IRS agent which was actually very funny when the guy recounted all the crazy stuff he’d heard over his career).
      And in New York corporate terms, we’re not talking all that much money. Maybe a middle-manager’s salary, the equivalent of good hotel accommodations, shared gym and the like, for around ten people – it’s next to nothing compared to what goes on with top executives.

      Tony Stark saying Iron Man was his bodyguard shouldn’t be a tax problem. Lying to the public isn’t a tax crime. Presumably Stark has paid all his taxes. He can fight any tax questions about who is Iron Man as legally unjustified (he has the lawyers to do it). I’m not a lawyer, but I think it’s reasonable he’d win that case, e.g. saying “Iron Man is one of the employees of Stark International, he has a social security number and any payments to him are reported properly in payroll accounting [completely true] – but I’m not obligated to tell you who he is without you getting a court order, which requires more evidence than a fishing expedition”.

    • The stipend is income. The meals and housing are not income, because they are provided for the benefit of the employer, not the employee. The point of having Earth’s Mightiest Heroes all in one place ready to be assembled into action is so that they can deal with any threat without delay. (Think of a similar situation… a lighthouse-keeper doesn’t pay taxes for the cash value of living in the lighthouse, because he’s not there for HIS benefit, he’s there so he can handle any problems with the lighthouse as soon as possible because having the lighthouse out is a navigational hazard. Right after taking Income Tax I, I could have told you exactly which section of the IRC specifies the rules, but it’s been long enough that I don’t remember the specific sections anymore. The fun case to read involved a guy who was a resident manager at a resort in Hawaii. He got a room onsite, and ate in the resort’s restaurant at no charge every day (his wife, too.) This turned out to be OK, because the reason he was onsite was so the staff could consult with him at any time 24×7.

      • By that reasoning, couldn’t an employer justify paying an ordinary person’s housing by saying “we want to ensure he doesn’t become homeless because if he becomes homeless it would be difficult to do his job”? Could they pay for someone’s childcare on the grounds that if they were taking care of the children themselves it would be hard to do the job?

        Why doesn’t the IRS say “the guy has to pay for food anyway, so paying for him to have food at Avengers Mansion is not an additional expense except to the extent to which this food costs more than normal food”?

      • No, it doesn’t work that way. If the employer provides housing, meals, or clothing, it has to be for a reason that directly relates to the employer. Think of the Avengers in Avengers mansion like the firefighters in a firehouse… Firemen do not pay taxes on the value of having a place to sleep because the reason they’re there is for the benefit of the employer (the fire department) and not the employee. It’s a tough bar to meet, except for the cases where it isn’t.

        Some employers DO provide daycare, but it’s not usually for tax reasons, it’s for recruiting reasons.
        Providing meals onsite is non-taxable if the reason you’re providing food is NOT so that the person can eat, but so the person doesn’t have to leave the premises to eat.
        My understanding is that the most controversial of these is actually clothing. If you need special equipment (safety-toe boots, for example) or uniforms that are specific to the job (no, even though a suit is a requirement for appearing in court, lawyers can’t get free suits provided by the firm, because suits are not specific to the job. That weird hat they make you wear down at the mall’s food court, however, being something you wouldn’t be caught dead in when you’re off-shift, is tax-free.)

        Go back to the basic examples… lighthouse keepers and firefighters and soldiers get free housing because you want them to stay on the premises. Restaurant managers get free meals because you want them to stay on the premises at mealtimes. Pro football players get free jerseys and athletic shoes because they’re required to have them to do their jobs.

  12. But if you didn’t care about the restaurant manager being on the premises, he’d have to buy meals out of his normal salary and that would be taxed. Each on-site meal reduces his expenses by the cost of a normal meal.

    Why, then, isn’t the tax free amount the *additional* expense–the greater cost of giving him on-site meals compared to giving him income that he uses to buy his own meals–rather than the *total* cost of the on-site meals?

    Firefighters sleeping in a firehouse isn’t comparable because sleeping in the firehouse doesn’t reduce his normal housing expenses. Likewise, buying football players jerseys doesn’t reduce their normal clothing expenses.

  13. Pingback: Learn the law from superheros with Law and the Multiverse | Tarlton Library News

  14. From Chapter 34 of the DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT REGULATION VOLUME 7A: “MILITARY PAY POLICY – ACTIVE DUTY AND RESERVE PAY”

    340301. General
    A member who enters a missing status is entitled to the pay and allowances to which entitled when the missing status began or to which the member later becomes entitled. The right to a certain pay or allowance is not affected by the fact that the member had not actually received payment before entering missing status.

    340604. Change in Date of Death
    Payment of an account made following a report, determination, or finding of death may not be recovered and the case may not be reopened because of a later report or determination fixing an earlier date of death. If a later date of death is established, then the account is reopened and settled on the basis of the later date

    So while I’m not sure when all these rules went into effect, he would have been paid (or his designated beneficiaries – parents?) till they changed his status from MIA to KIA. Once found alive, they remove the Date of death, and catch up on all the missed pay. Note that he gets any allowances he was entitled to, not just pay.

    So he actually picked up about 20 years of back pay. Not a bad check.

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