Social Security is arguably one of the most important social programs in this country. It provides benefit checks to more than 63 million retirees, disabled workers, and survivors of deceased workers each month and is singlehandedly keeping more than 22 million people, many of whom are senior citizens, out of poverty.
And yet, despite its importance, it's often swept under the rug by lawmakers in Washington for being too much of a hot-button topic. While it's as plain as day that Social Security is in trouble over the long run and needs a fix, lawmakers fear the backlash that could ensue when tough decisions are made. That makes Social Security a highly watched issue as we head toward the 2020 election, as well as one that continually gets pushed to the wayside by candidates.
However, the field of more than two dozen presidential candidates can't hide from their previous commentary and track records. After some digging, three candidates emerged as having, at one time, broken with their political party's core resolutions on Social Security.
Former vice president and current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden shares a lot in common with his party on Social Security. He strongly opposes privatization, and favors the idea of lifting the payroll tax cap to require the rich to pay more into the system. But Biden has, on more than one occasion, taken a centrist, or downright Republican approach to fixing Social Security.
In 2007, Biden took this approach by stating that tax increases and raising the retirement age would both be on the table should he become president, according to NBC News. Raising the full retirement age would protect the payouts of current and near-term retirees, but would require future generations of workers (Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z) to either wait longer to receive their full payout, or to accept an even steeper permanent reduction by claiming early. Either way, it's designed to lower the lifetime benefits received by today's younger workers.
Looking back even further, Biden once went so far as to call for a freeze on government spending, including Social Security and Medicare, back in 1995. Said Biden, courtesy of C-Span:
"For example, I'm going to go on record. I'm up for reelection this year, and I'm going to remind everybody what I did at home, which is going to cost me politically. When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security, as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans' benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once -- I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time. Somebody has to tell me in here how we're going to do this hard work without dealing with any of those sacred cows, some deserving more protection than others."
Though it's unlikely that Biden would take such a hard-line stance today, there's no denying that his views on Social Security aren't perfectly aligned with the Democratic Party.
Sure, Donald Trump is the president right now, but by the time November 2020 rolls around, he'll be a candidate once again.
Consistent with GOP ideology, Trump has looked for ways to modestly reduce long-term program costs. This includes a handful of fiscal budget proposals that called for reductions to the Social Security Disability Insurance program. But Trump hasn't always offered policies that have been consistent with Republican ideology.
In The America We Deserve, released in 2000, Trump proposed a one-time tax of 14.25% on individuals and trusts with a net worth of more than $10 million. This one-time tax would have raised $5.7 trillion, which, back in 2000, would have wiped out America's national debt. By Trump's account, removing this debt would save the federal government $200 billion a year. Half of this savings was to be put toward a 10-year middle-class tax cut, for an aggregate of $1 trillion over a decade. The remaining $100 billion was to be placed annually in Social Security's asset reserves, thereby keeping the program solvent for the next century. In other words, Trump proposed taxing the rich to save Social Security!
Even though Republicans distanced themselves from George W. Bush's signature idea of partially privatizing Social Security in 2005, Trump also notes in The America We Deserve that workers should have their choice of investment options in private accounts. Essentially, "The Donald" supported partial privatization of the program back in 2000.
In short, Trump and the GOP don't always see eye-to-eye on Social Security.
Depending on the poll, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker ranks as the fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-most popular Democrat in the presidential race at the moment. Of course, it's early, and things tend to change quite a bit as primaries kick off.
Like most Democrats, Booker believes in the core Social Security principles of having the rich pay their fair share, upping the cost-of-living adjustment so seniors receive more each year, and generally opposing any reductions to benefits. This is all par for the course in Democratic ideology in fixing Social Security.
However, Booker has slightly sidestepped his party when it comes to Social Security's full retirement age debate. Although he strongly opposes gradual increases to the retirement age in the near term, he's been quoted as supporting an increase to the full retirement age for people in their 20s or younger.
One of the biggest problems with the full retirement age is that it will have risen by a mere two years (from 65 to 67) between 1940, the year of the first payout, and 2022. All the while, the average life expectancy in the U.S. has grown by nine years just since 1960. More people are living to their claiming age, and the average life expectancy for those reaching 65 years of age is another 20 years. Social Security was never built to support seniors for decades, and it appears Booker understands the need to adjust the program for increased longevity many years down the road.
Since a bipartisan solution would more than likely give Social Security its best chance at long-term success, the willingness of these three presidential candidates to look at solutions beyond their party lines makes them worth closely watching.