Advocates push 2020 Dems to address Social Security reform

Advocates push 2020 Dems to address Social Security reform
© iStock

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement 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 SandersBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Angst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire 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 GillibrandTreat broadband as infrastructure and we have a chance to get it right House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors To make energy green, remove red tape MORE (D-N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - CDC equates Delta to chickenpox in contagiousness Harris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Why in the world are White House reporters being told to mask up again? MORE (D-Calif.), and Cory BookerCory BookerWomen urge tech giants to innovate on office return Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines 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 WarrenCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election 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 LarsonThe case for improving America's research and experimentation tax credit To encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Democrats have a growing tax problem with SALT 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 SwalwellCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's riot lawsuit Tech executives increased political donations amid lobbying push MORE (D-Calif.) and Seth MoultonSeth MoultonOvernight Defense: Senate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget | House passes bill to streamline visa process for Afghans who helped US | Pentagon confirms 7 Colombians arrested in Haiti leader's killing had US training Business, labor groups teaming in high-speed rail push Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer 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.