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Social Security: Where Clinton and Trump Stand

A head-to-head look at their plans for the retirement program

Next Avenue Blogger
Next Avenue Blogger

Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

(This is the first in a series of Next Avenue blog posts on where presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stand on key issues of interest to Americans over 50.)

Social Security is one of the most vital issues for older Americans. And, as things now stand, unless the Social Security system is changed, benefits will be cut by 21 percent in 2034, due to solvency issues. The only way to shore up Social Security is by raising taxes, cutting benefits (which could include raising the retirement age) or both.

Below is a head-to-head rundown on where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stand — as best as anyone can tell. Incidentally, Trump’s website makes little mention of Social Security; most of his policy positions come from what he has said in debates or speeches. Clinton’s site has more details about her proposals and she has fleshed them out elsewhere. Both recently gave a pretty good summation of their views to AARP.

As things now stand, unless the Social Security system is changed, benefits will be cut by 21 percent in 2034, due to solvency issues.

First, two caveats: Trump’s positions sometimes differ from the Republican Party platform, are still unknown or may change if he’s elected (more on that shortly). Some of Clinton’s positions have been evolving (her threshold for higher payroll taxes is new, for instance) or are vague. She told AARP “Social Security must continue to guarantee dignity in retirement for future generations.”

With that said, here are their specific proposals or proposal oppositions, as of today:

Addressing Social Security’s Long-Term Solvency

Donald Trump: At a June rally in Phoenix, Trump said: “We’re going to save your Social Security without killing it like so many people want to do.” During the campaign, Trump said something similar: “I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is.”

Trump says he’d do this by generating more Social Security payroll taxes by bringing back jobs and by getting rid of “deficits, waste, fraud and abuse.” Steve Bell, a budget expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told The Wall Street Journal,  however, “Any notion of waste, fraud and abuse during our fiscal needs remains…silliness. Trump’s comments are just another kick in the stomach to all of us who have worked for more than 30 years for solvency for Social Security.”

But Trump left the window open to future reforms in his comments to AARP, saying: “As our demography changes, a prudent administration would begin to examine what changes might be necessary for future generations.”

Similarly, Trump policy adviser Sam Clovis recently said at the 2016 Fiscal Summit of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation: “After the administration has been in place, then we will start to look at all of the programs, including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.” At that point, Clovis added, “We’ll start taking a hard look at those to start seeing what we can do in a bipartisan way,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

And although Trump hasn’t aligned himself with the Republican platform, that document says: “We reject the old maxim that Social Security is the ‘Third Rail’ of American politics, deadly for anyone who would change it…Of the many reforms being proposed, all options should be considered to preserve Social Security.”

Hillary Clinton: She opposes most proposals to shore up the system, other than raising payroll taxes on the wealthiest (see below). In fact, she wants to expand Social Security benefits for some people (detailed below).

The Democratic platform echoes her views: “We will fight every effort to cut, privatize or weaken Social Security, including attempts to raise the retirement age, diminish benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments or reducing earned benefits.”

The Social Security Retirement Age

Donald Trump: He opposes raising the Social Security retirement age, which is now between 66 and 67, depending on what year you were born. “It’s my intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is,” Trump has said. Other Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, prefer raising the retirement age to 69 or 70.

Hillary Clinton: She opposes raising the retirement age, too, calling that “an unfair idea that will particularly hurt the seniors who have worked the hardest throughout their lives.”

Social Security Benefits

Donald Trump: He has pledged to “save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts.” In a December TV interview, Trump said: “People signed up for Social Security; it’s kind of like a pledge. The people who have their Social Security, with me, are going to keep their Social Security.”

The Republican platform, however, says only that “current retirees and those close to retirement can be assured of their benefits.” The progressive advocacy group Social Security Works annotated the Republican platform saying: “So you plan to cut them for everyone else???”

Hillary Clinton: She’s against any cut in Social Security benefits. But “rather than expand benefits for everyone, I do want to take care of low-income seniors who worked at low-wage jobs. I want to start by helping those people who are most at risk,” Clinton has said.

And she wants to increase Social Security benefits for widows. Clinton told AARP that the poverty rate for widowed women 65 or older is nearly 90 percent higher than for other seniors. One reason, she noted: When a spouse dies, “families can face a steep benefit cut.” For a two-earner couple, the cuts can be as much as 50 percent, Clinton said.

“We have to change that by reducing how much Social Security benefits drop when a spouse dies, so that the loss of a spouse doesn’t mean financial hardship or falling into poverty,” Clinton noted.

Social Security and Family Caregivers

Donald Trump: No position.

Hillary Clinton: She wants to boost Social Security benefits for people who take time off from work for family caregiving duties. Her rationale: Under the current system, caregivers can see their Social Security benefits reduced at retirement, since benefits are based on a person’s top 35 years of earnings. “Americans should receive credit toward their Social Security benefits when they are out of the paid workforce because they are acting as caregivers,” Clinton told AARP.

Social Security Annual Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLAs)

Donald Trump: He would not change the way COLAs are calculated. Many other Republicans want to make these annual increases less generous than under the current formula.

Hillary Clinton: She opposes reducing annual cost-of-living adjustments. The Democratic platform actually prefers increasing them compared to the way COLAs are calculated today, believing that retirees’ high health care out-of-pocket costs aren’t adequately reflected. (Clinton has not said this publicly, to the best of Next Avenue’s knowledge.) The platform says the party is “committed to exploring [COLA] alternatives that could better and more equitably serve seniors.”

The Social Security Payroll Tax

Donald Trump: He’s against raising payroll taxes in general and opposes raising the Social Security payroll “tax cap.” (The tax cap is the current $118,500 ceiling on earnings subject to FICA taxes.) The Republican Party platform echoes this view: “As Republicans, we oppose tax increases.”

Hillary Clinton: She would increase Social Security payroll taxes on people earning more than $250,000. (That means workers wouldn’t owe FICA taxes on earnings between $118,500 and $250,000.) And, Clinton told AARP, she favors taxing some income of the highest-income Americans that is not currently taxed.

Privatizing Social Security

Donald Trump: Trump has not offered a position about switching Social Security to privatization, where workers manage their own retirement funds through personal investment accounts.

However, the Republican platform hints at it, saying the party believes “in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system.” Clovis favored privatization when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2014.

Hillary Clinton: She’s against privatization. Clinton told AARP that she would “fight any attempts to gamble seniors’ retirement security on the stock market through privatization.”

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