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Advocates push 2020 Dems to address Social Security reform

Advocates push 2020 Dems to address Social Security reform
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Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination regularly talk about protecting or expanding Social Security benefits, but the issue is far from center stage, and few are offering a viable plan to keep the program solvent.

A report out this week found that the Social Security trust fund will run out of money in just 16 years, meaning beneficiaries will start seeing cuts in 2035 if nothing is done.

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Candidates have been lobbing volleys on hot button issues such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, scrapping the Electoral College and whether to impeach President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Biden, Trudeau agree to meet next month Trump planned to oust acting AG to overturn Georgia election results: report MORE, but are largely mum on how to keep Social Security afloat, even though several have signed onto legislation in the past. 

That's led to frustration from stakeholders.

“No one has come up with a real retirement security plan at all," says Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, an advocacy group for retirees.

Experts say that keeping the program funded past 2035 is no easy task.

Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, pointed out how difficult the situation was following the report's release this week, as the population ages and costs go up.

“The costs of paying for Social Security retirement [and] disability benefits is rising, principally because of the changing age distribution of the population,” he said at a forum hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center on Tuesday.

Goss said that without action, by 2035, the trust fund will be depleted, and revenues coming in from payroll taxes would only be able to cover less than 80 percent of benefits.

Waiting to fix the problem would make the solution more painful.

"The sooner changes are made, the less severe they will need to be," the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) found in an analysis of the report.

Fixing the problem today would require either a 22 percent hike in payroll taxes, a 17 percent cut in existing benefits, or a 20 percent cut to new benefits, though a comprehensive solution would probably include some balance of the three. 

"Waiting until 2035 would increase the needed adjustments to overall taxes and benefits by over a third and would make it impossible to save Social Security with changes for new beneficiaries alone," the group noted.

Social Security is one of America’s most popular programs, which has made it a third rail of American politics. Both parties have attacked the other for plans they say would cut retirement benefits.

As a candidate, President Trump promised to protect Social Security, and just ahead of the 2018 midterms argued that Democrats were trying to pull it apart.

“We’re saving Social Security. The Democrats will destroy Social Security," he said in September.

Democrats have held that Republican plans to cut mandatory spending target Social Security and related anti-poverty programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. 

But when it comes to the 2020 race, most Democrats don’t have issue pages on Social Security on their election websites at all, and those who do have not made Social Security a centerpiece of their campaigns.

One exception has been Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Next steps in the Trump impeachment Sanders selling sweatshirts with his famous inauguration pose for charity Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' MORE (I-Vt.), whose website features a call to expand Social Security benefits and extend the lifeline of the trust fund by taxing the rich. Currently, the payroll taxes that fund Social Security only apply to the first $132,900 of salary. Sanders’ proposal would reintroduce the payroll tax for dollars earned past $250,000.

Sanders says that his plan would extend solvency until 2071, a 36-year increase, while also expanding benefits. 2020 challengers Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocrats torn on impeachment trial timing OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: 12 removed from National Guard inauguration security | Austin backs lifting transgender ban Biden Pentagon pick supports lifting transgender military ban MORE (D-N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSenators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal An ally in the White House is good for abortion access, but not enough LeBron James says 'it would be great' for champion Lakers to visit Biden White House MORE (D-Calif.), and Cory BookerCory BookerDemocrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Booker brings girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, to inauguration MORE (D-N.J.) are co-sponsors.

But experts note that the plan delays the problem instead of solving it, and some think that it will simply shift revenue from general taxes toward Social Security, which would end up creating shortfalls elsewhere.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Mass.), who has led the field in terms of rolling out policy proposals, doesn’t mention her Social Security plan on her website. But Warren has advocated for lifting the cap on payroll taxes altogether, an approach the Alliance for Retired Americans says would avoid creating a “reverse donut hole” of revenues and help stabilize the fund.

Sanders and Warren co-chair the newly-created Expand Social Security Caucus.

In the House, a bill sponsored by Rep. John Larson John Barry LarsonCOVID-19 damage to Social Security to extend beyond pandemic It's time for a grand agreement on Social Security What we need to do next to defeat COVID and unify the country MORE (D-Conn.) would renew the payroll tax at $400,000, but also gradually raise how much people have to pay in. The Social Security Administration said those two fixes would keep the fund solvent over the 75-year window they analyze, even with the larger benefits.

Reps. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell compares Trump to bin Laden: They 'inspired and radicalized' Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers House Judiciary Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump MORE (D-Calif.) and Seth MoultonSeth MoultonLawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot House chairman endorses Michele Flournoy for Biden's Pentagon chief Trump critic: I am not afraid of Trump MORE (D-Mass.), who are both running for the Dem nomination, signed on as co-sponsors.

Tim Lim, a partner at NEWCO Strategies, a Democratic political strategic consulting firm, says that the issue isn’t getting as much attention from Democrats as it did a decade ago because Republicans aren’t making an active push to rework the program, as they were then.

“I think it’s because Republicans aren’t campaigning hard on privatization,” he says.

It also may feel less pressing to voters than other headline issues.

“The difference between Social Security and climate change is that you can see the real time effects of climate change happening. You’re seeing hurricanes and tornadoes and insane temperatures,” Lilm adds.

But Democrats might do well to give it more attention.

According to a poll by the National Institute on Retirement Security, 80 percent of Democrats think the nation is facing a retirement crisis, as do 75 percent of Republicans and Independents.