For most Americans, Social Security is, or will become, a vital source of income during retirement. According to surveys conducted by national pollster Gallup, nearly 90% of current retirees lean on their Social Security income to make ends meet. Additionally, 84% of nonretirees expect to rely on Social Security as a "major" or "minor" source of income during their golden years.
But even though it's been our nation's most successful retirement program for more than eight decades, Social Security finds itself in some pretty serious financial trouble. According to the 2022 Social Security Board of Trustees Report, the program is facing a jaw-dropping $20.4 trillion cash shortfall over the next 75 years. While this doesn't mean Social Security is insolvent -- the program, thankfully, can't go bankrupt as long as Americans continue working -- it does portend the growing likelihood of steep benefit cuts on the not-too-distant horizon if nothing changes.
Social Security needs to be "fixed" so it can thrive for many more generations, and that means making the hard decision to collect more revenue, cut benefits, or enact some combination of the two.
While most lawmakers have shied away from directly calling for Social Security benefits to be cut, President Joe Biden has previously done so on two separate occasions.
1. Biden leaves the door open to raise the full retirement age
Speaking in a very broad sense, Biden's political party (Democrat) prefers to raise additional revenue for Social Security by increasing the payroll tax paid by high-earning workers. But every once in a while, we see prominent lawmakers break with their party on key issues, which is exactly what happened when Joe Biden was a presidential candidate for the 2008 ticket.
In September 2007, Biden released a plan that was, among other things, designed to shore up Social Security. Keep in mind that lawmakers have known since the 1985 Board of Trustees Report that Social Security wasn't on track to bring in enough revenue over the next 75 years to cover its projected payouts. Although this plan called for an increase to the maximum taxable earnings cap on high earners, Biden was also open to discussing bipartisan options, such as raising the full retirement age.
The full retirement age is the age at which a beneficiary becomes eligible to receive 100% of their retired worker benefit. For roughly six decades after the first Social Security check went out in 1940, the full retirement age stood pat at 65. But following two rounds of gradual increases, everyone born in 1960 and later has a full retirement age of 67.
Raising the full retirement age, which is a core solution touted by Republicans, would require eligible beneficiaries to wait longer to receive their full monthly payout. Regardless of whether retired workers choose to take their payout early -- therefore accepting a permanently reduced monthly benefit -- or wait until full retirement age, increasing the full retirement age would lower the lifetime benefits paid to a retired worker.
2. Joe Biden calls for means-testing
The second time President Biden called for Social Security benefit cuts happened more recently.
In May 2018, nearly a full year before declaring his candidacy for president, Biden advocated for benefits means-testing while speaking at a Brookings Institution event. Said Biden:
Paul Ryan [the former Republican speaker of the house] was correct when he did the tax code. What's the first thing he decided we had to go after? Social Security and Medicare. Now, we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare. That's the only way you can find room to pay for it. Now, I don't know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1% or top 1% [who] are relying on Social Security when they retire.
While Biden's remarks primarily emphasize the need to progressively increase payroll taxation on high earners, they also alluded to the idea of means-testing for benefits.
Means-testing would involve partially or fully removing Social Security payouts to eligible recipients based on predefined annual income thresholds. In other words, it would ensure that individuals and couples who don't need Social Security benefits to live comfortably would receive a reduced payout, or perhaps none at all. Even though this would only affect a small percentage of beneficiaries, it's nevertheless a call for benefits to be cut.
President Biden's four-point Social Security plan is a long shot to pass
The thing about our elected officials is that their views on policy tend to change over time. That's the case with President Biden, whose four-point plan to strengthen Social Security -- this plan was laid out during his campaign -- makes no mention of reducing or cutting Social Security benefits.
In no particular order, here are the four Social Security changes Biden now advocates:
- Increase payroll taxation on high earners: In 2022, all earned income between $0.01 and $147,000 is subject to Social Security's 12.4% payroll tax. However, well over $1 trillion in wages and salary above $147,000 is exempted from this tax. Biden has proposed creating a doughnut hole between the current payroll tax cap and $400,000 where earned income would remain exempt. Meanwhile, the payroll tax would be reinstated on all wages and salary above $400,000 to generate more revenue for Social Security.
- Boost the special minimum benefit: Biden advocates increasing the minimum monthly payout to lifetime low-earners to 125% of the federal poverty level. If this proposal were law in 2022, it would mean a special minimum benefit of $1,416/month instead of $951 for a lifetime low-earner with 30 years of coverage.
- Lift benefits for long-lived Social Security recipients: Biden's plan calls for the primary insurance amount (PIA) to be increased by 1% annually from ages 78 through 82, which would equate to a 5% aggregate lift to the PIA. This proposed benefit increase is designed to help aged beneficiaries cover higher expenses as they age, such as medical transportation costs.
- Switch the inflationary tether to the CPI-E from CPI-W: Lastly, Biden has called for the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E) to become Social Security's new inflationary measure. Though the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) has been the program's inflationary tether since 1975, it doesn't do a particularly good job of tracking the expenditures that matter most to seniors.
While these proposals have the potential to strengthen Social Security, Biden's plan doesn't have anywhere near the number of votes (60) that would be needed to amend Social Security in the Senate.
The conundrum of Social Security reform is that both of America's political parties have a working solution, which means neither is willing to cede an inch and find common ground with their opposition. Without cooperation on Capitol Hill and from the Oval Office, Social Security appears destined to spiral toward what could be a sizable benefit cut in as little as 12 years.