In November 2020, voters have an extremely consequential choice about Social Security. Who is elected will likely determine whether Social Security is expanded or cut and perhaps even radically transformed.
Starting in the 1970s, a billionaire-funded campaign has wrongly convinced too many Americans that Social Security will be unaffordable as the population ages. Too many politicians became convinced that any changes to Social Security would be electoral suicide, and so talked in vague terms of “fixing” Social Security through a bipartisan solution.
The truth is that even an expanded Social Security is fully affordable. Social Security will cost about the same, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), at the end of the century as it costs today. Social Security costs—and will continue to cost—substantially less, as a percentage of GDP, than most other industrialized nations spend on their counterpart programs. The question of whether to expand or cut Social Security is a matter of values, not affordability.
Over the last decade, more and more Democrats have recognized that Social Security isn’t a problem in need of fixing. Rather, Social Security is a solution. It is a solution to the nation’s looming retirement income crisis, to rising levels of income inequality and much more. Its one shortcoming is that its vital benefits are too low.
Candidate Platforms Sharply Contrast
Consistent with that understanding, Joe Biden is running on a platform of expanding Social Security, while requiring the wealthiest to pay their fair share. In sharp contrast, the Republicans are using the old playbook. They refuse to say what they stand for, instead pushing for a bipartisan deal that cuts Social Security behind closed doors.
During the 2016 Republican primary, Donald Trump used his promise that he would not cut Social Security as a key point of contrast with his Republican opponents. He said that, “they want to cut it very substantially, the Republicans, and I’m not going to do that.”
Trump was correct about the stance of the Republican Party, but lying about his own position. Prior to running, he had made clear his disdain for Social Security and the economic security it provides. Once in the White House, Trump revealed his true anti-Social Security views. Trump’s proposed budgets have included billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security. In a FOX News town hall earlier this year, he pledged that “we’ll be cutting” entitlements. “Entitlements” is DC-insider speak for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Moreover, Trump is obsessed with cutting Social Security’s dedicated revenue, even threatening to veto any coronavirus relief package that didn’t include those cuts. As a response to COVID-19 and the resulting economic collapse, cutting Social Security’s dedicated revenue makes no sense. But as a first step toward dismantling our Social Security system, it is very effective.
With an election approaching, powerful Republicans in Congress resisted the cut, accurately labeling it a raid of Social Security. But Trump has tried to do by executive fiat what even Republicans in Congress would not support. On August 8, he directed his Secretary of the Treasury to stop collecting employee Social Security contributions from Sept. 1 through the end of the year. More alarming, in announcing this action, Trump said that, if re-elected he would permanently “terminate” Social Security’s dedicated revenue.
This is a death threat to the program. Without that dedicated revenue, Social Security’s accumulated reserves, which amount to $2.9 trillion, would be depleted within three years. At that point, with no new revenue, all benefits would simply stop. By law, Social Security benefits cannot be paid without sufficient revenue to cover the cost. In this case, there would be no revenue.
Trump, by his own admission, poses a clear and present danger to Social Security.
If, dear reader, your reaction is that Congress would never let this happen, think again. By taking the unprecedented step of deferring Social Security’s revenue on his own, Donald Trump has signaled how, on his own, he could continue to defer that revenue until benefits stopped. Once re-elected, Trump would have the veto pen with no accountability to voters or anyone else. He would have enormous leverage to do what he said he supported before ever running for office—privatize Social Security, raise the retirement age to 70 or worse. The choice for supporters of Social Security would be to give into the blackmail or see the hostage—Social Security—killed. The leverage of Trump and his allies in Congress would be enormous.
In light of this existential threat, a more devious method of undermining Social Security, contained in the Republican proposed coronavirus relief package, seems almost quaint—but to be comprehensive, it deserves mention. It calls for a closed-door committee to develop recommendations that will then be fast-tracked through Congress without the ability to amend. (At the time of this writing, Congress seems to be stalemated over a new coronavirus relief package.)
It is no surprise that older adults are increasingly turning against the Republican Party. Trump and Congressional Republicans are doing nothing to stem the pandemic, and nothing to protect those in nursing homes and others most threatened by COVID-19. Instead, they are clandestinely working overtime to cut our earned benefits. Indeed, the current occupant of the Oval Office has announced for all of us to hear that, if re-elected, he will make war on our earned benefits.
The history of Social Security includes Republicans, like President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who supported Social Security. But today’s Republican party is radical and out of step in its opposition to this pillar of our economic security.
Voting Plus Education Both Necessary This Election
For those who care about Social Security, voting Democratic is imperative. But much more is needed. People who care should educate themselves. Trump will undoubtedly attack Biden on Social Security and claim to be the real supporter of the program. But don’t be fooled. The two parties are as far apart on Social Security as they have been in many decades. Unfortunately, no modern-day Republican politician can be trusted to protect our earned benefits. Trump, by his own admission, poses a clear and present danger to Social Security. He even used the word “terminate.”
Once educated, supporters of Social Security must spread the word to families, friends and neighbors, through conversation, letters to the editor and Op-Eds. It is also crucial to get involved. Volunteer for candidates who pledge to expand, not cut, Social Security.Social Security celebrated its 85th birthday on August 14, 2020. Over its 85 years, it has been threatened numerous times, but the American people have pushed back every assault—and we can do it again. But we won’t succeed without getting involved.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works and chairs the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, both in Washington, DC.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of ASA management or its members.