In recent days, Sen. Bernie Sanders and his campaign surrogates have accused former Vice President Joe Biden of being dishonest about his views on Social Security. Although much has been written about Biden’s position, far less scrutiny has been applied to what Sanders proposes to do with the nation’s largest federal spending program. That’s a problem, because Sanders’ agenda isn’t honest about Social Security’s financial condition and would gravely harm the young voters powering his presidential campaign if enacted.
Here are the facts: both Biden and Sanders, as well as nearly every other Democrat running for president in 2020, have proposed to expand Social Security benefits during the campaign. Nobody is championing benefit cuts in this election. The only real difference among the candidates’ proposals is for whom benefits would be expanded. Biden has targeted his benefit expansions to low-wage workers and window(ers), two groups of older Americans that are statistically more likely to be left in poverty by our retirement system. These are the folks who need Social Security the most. Sanders, meanwhile, has proposed across-the-board benefit increases that would increase benefits for even the wealthiest retirees regardless of need.
Unfortunately, no one is talking about the elephant in the room: Social Security doesn’t even have the capacity to pay out the benefits already scheduled. Every year since 2010, the program has spent more money on benefits than it has raised in payroll taxes. The U.S. Treasury is currently covering that shortfall, because it borrowed from previous surpluses and is now paying that debt back. But once those funds are exhausted in 2035, Social Security would be legally required to cut benefits across the board by roughly 20 percent. Even Sanders has acknowledged the program has “been adjusted before, and adjustments will have to be made again.”
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