The term was derived from the scheme created during the 1920s by Charles Ponzi, a poor but enterprising Italian immigrant. Here's how it works. You persuade some people to give you their money to invest. After a while, you pay them a nice return, but the return doesn't come from investments. What you pay them with comes from the money of other people whom you've persuaded to "invest" in your scheme. The scheme works so long as you can persuade greater and greater numbers of people to "invest" so that you can pay off earlier "investors." After a while, Ponzi couldn't find enough new investors, and his scheme collapsed. He was convicted of fraud and sent to prison.
The very first Social Security check went to Ida May Fuller in 1940. She paid just $24.75 in Social Security taxes but collected a total of $22,888.92 in benefits, getting back all she put into Social Security in a month. According to a Congressional Research Service report titled "Social Security Reform" (October 2002), by Geoffrey Kollmann and Dawn Nuschler, workers who retired in 1980 at age 65 got back all they put into Social Security, plus interest, in 2.8 years. Workers who retired at age 65 in 2002 will have to wait a total of 16.9 years to break even. For those retiring in 2020, it will take 20.9 years. Workers entering the labor force today won't live long enough to get back even half of what they will put into Social Security. Social Security faces Ponzi's problem, not enough new "investors." In 1940, there were 160 workers paying into Social Security per retiree; today there are only 2.9 and falling.