Social Security is vitally important to many Americans. Indeed, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the majority of elderly beneficiaries get 50% or more of their income from Social Security, while 22% of married elderly beneficiaries and 47% of unmarried ones get fully 90% or more of their income from it. Thus, it's smart to wonder what the leading candidates for the U.S. presidency have said about Social Security and how they might change it. For example, how would Donald Trump change Social Security?
That's a harder question to answer than you might think, because Trump hasn't been very consistent in his views on Social Security. As Jim Geraghty noted in National Review last month, "Within 24 hours of becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump had reversed his positions on tax increases, paying down the debt, raising the minimum wage, and self-financing his campaign. It was a busy day."
Still, it's instructive to review things he has said about the program, as they can offer a little insight into his thinking. Keep in mind that in general, Republican positions on Social Security range from reducing benefits to raising the retirement age to reducing the Social Security tax rate to even privatizing the system. (Democrats, including President Obama, have called for expanding the program.)
What Donald Trump has said about Social Security
I tried to find mentions of Social Security on Trump's campaign website, but I didn't see it among the topics he addressed there -- among them "The Trade War," "Illegal Immigration," "The Economy," "Political Correctness," "Live Free or Die," and "Competent Leadership."
Fortunately, others have been keeping track of his words. Back in 2000, in his book The America We Deserve, Trump compared Social Security to a Ponzi scheme, suggesting that it should be privatized and that the retirement age should be increased.
During a Republican debate in March, Trump reportedly said, "It's my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is," adding, "I want to make our country rich again so we can afford it."
In a 2015 debate, when asked about limiting Social Security by income, he said, "As a policy, I would leave it up to the people," adding: "Don't forget they pay in, and maybe they do well, and maybe some people want it. But the fact is that there are people that truly don't need it, and there are many people that do need it very, very badly."
How Donald Trump would change Social Security
Trump's words might be reassuring, but we shouldn't just accept them at face value. Here are some reasons to worry:
- Trump's team has suggested that his economic plan will grow the U.S. economy faster, leading to a multitrillion-dollar surplus within a decade. However, the Tax Foundation (which is considered somewhat right-leaning) has begged to differ, estimating that Trump's plan to sharply reduce corporate taxes and simplify the tax code would reduce tax revenue by some $10 trillion. With that kind of a shortfall, our economic environment might not be conducive to preserving Social Security. (The Center for a Responsible Federal Budget has estimated that Trump's overall plans are likely to raise our national debt by $12 trillion to $15 trillion.)
- Several of Trump's recently hired advisors have argued for privatizing Social Security, reducing benefits, and otherwise shrinking the program -- including cuts to disability, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. After Trump spoke out in general support of Social Security, his advisor Sam Clovis suggested on May 11 that Trump would consider making cuts to the program.
- While Trump may speak out in support of Social Security these days, note that in a 2013 address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, he opined, "As Republicans, if you think you are going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in any substantial way, and at the same time you think you are going to win elections, it just really is not going to happen." In other words, if Trump has plans to slash Social Security, he recognizes that it's politically unwise to say so.
What you can expect
Given all of this, what is likely to happen to Social Security should Donald Trump be elected president? Until he releases a firm plan for this vital program, we have no way of knowing.