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3 Terrible Ways Presidential Candidates Want to 'Fix' Social Security

By Todd Campbell - Feb 20, 2016 at 8:01AM

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Tax hikes, higher retirement ages, and reduced benefits are among candidates' less palatable options for fixing Social Security.

Source: Flickr user Garry Knight

This year's crop of presidential candidates have different plans for how America should deal with the risk of Social Security insolvency, and most of these strategies include less-than-desirable changes. Democratic Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton think the best way to shore up the program is by broadening the amount of people's income that is subject to Social Security taxes, while Republican candidates, including Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, prefer approaches that reduce Social Security benefits.

No. 1: Increase taxes on the rich
Currently, Social Security is funded by a 12.4% payroll tax on wages below $118,500, half of which is paid by employees, and half by their employers. Sanders and Clinton believe that income cap needs to change if payroll tax revenue is going to keep up with Social Security payments to beneficiaries in the future, though they disagree on the details.

Baby boomers are turning 65 at a pace of 10,000 people per day and as a result, the proportion of workers to retirees is shrinking. As a result, government watchdogs estimate that Social Security tax revenue will begin coming up shy in 2034, forcing a widespread cut to benefits.

To prevent that from happening, Sanders suggests that the payroll tax should be applied to income above $250,000. (He would leave income between $118,500 and $250,000 exempt from payroll taxes.) Sanders asserts that imposing the payroll tax on income above $250,000 would keep Social Security solvent for an additional 50 years, and provide the program with enough money to increase Social Security payments by an average of $65 per month.

Like Sanders, Clinton also believes that it makes sense to tax high income earners. Clinton wouldn't apply the payroll tax to income between $118,500 and $200,000, but she would tax income north of $200,000. Clinton has also discussed applying the payroll tax to other sources of income, such as dividends and capital gains. Clinton believes those moves will both keep the program solvent and provide enough funding to increase benefits for widows, the poor, and women who took time out of their career to raise children, and thus, often receive smaller benefit checks in retirement.

Source: Bernie Sanders

No. 2: Raise the retirement age
Sadly, nearly one quarter of all married Social Security recipients rely on Social Security for 90% of their retirement income. In 2016, the average monthly Social Security payment to a retired worker is $1,341.

If that doesn't sound like a lot of money, it isn't. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average retiree spent $41,403 in 2013, and that's far more than $16,000 or so in Social Security income that millions of American seniors will collect this year.  

To keep the program viable, Republican candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson agree that the full retirement age, currently 67 for Americans born after 1960, must be increased. As the argument goes, bumping up the age at which Americans can file and receive Social Security reduces the program's spending, freeing up money that can be used to keep the average benefit from being reduced.

These candidates haven't said what "magic" number they would increase the full retirement age to, but Bush has mentioned that an age as high as 70 could be on the table. Regardless, all of these candidates do agree that current retirees and those near retirement shouldn't be affected by any change in the full retirement age.

No. 3: Reducing benefits 
Changing the formula used to calculate how much in benefits recipients are able to receive is another way Ted Cruz and Chris Christie think they can reduce Social Security spending and keep the program solvent.

Currently, the annual cost of living adjustments to benefits are calculated using the consumer price index, a common measure of inflation. Cruz and Christie argue that shifting to another inflation measure that historically hasn't grown as quickly as CPI -- a figure known as chained-CPI -- would slow the rate of increase in benefits.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis of a 2014 proposal to shift to chained-CPI by President Obama found that chained-CPI grew by 0.3% less than traditional CPI between 1999 and 2011 and switching to chained-CPI would result in retired workers receiving $30 less per month in benefits by 2023. {%sfr} 

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