The Democrat/Republican Presidential Candidate Divide On Social Security

Dave Johnson

The differences between Democratic presidential candidates and most Republican candidates on Social Security — and retirement security in general — could emerge as a “sleeper issue” in the 2016 campaign.

Friday’s post, Martin O’Malley Offers Strong Plan To Expand Retirement Security, looked at the retirement crisis facing aging Americans and Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders’ plans to boost retirement security. (Hillary Clinton has not released plan beyond saying she would be open to raising the income cap on Social Security taxes to help shore up the program’s finance.)

These candidates want to expand retirement security because Democrats generally have a “we are all in this together” and “it takes a village” approach to taking care of each other, which includes the elderly. Republicans have a very different “each of us on our own” approach to society. This applies to retirement security with Republicans largely believing that retirement income and even to a large extent healthcare should be more, or even entirely, up to the individual.

Most current Republican presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee, follow this “on your own” philosophy, offering plans to raise the retirement age, raise the early retirement age, means-test benefits, cut benefits, partially privatize it with some of the money going into Wall Street-managed personal accounts or just privatize the program entirely with all of it going into Wall Street-managed personal accounts. (Note that God/Mother Turtle likes to weigh in with coincident stock-market drops when Republicans start discussing putting Social Security into stock. The stock market dropped 1000 points last week, and has fallen more than 10% recently.)

The positions of the top 10 Republican candidates, Fox debate style, (in the order of their current polling rank), are:

Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, has chastised the other Republicans for “attacking Social Security” and says “America’s real problem is that it has lost manufacturing jobs to China.” Trump says, “It’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want to be cut.” This is likely part of his appeal to voters.

Second-place Republican candidate Jeb! “work longer hours” Bush says he wants the retirement age raised to 68, even 70. (He did not know that it had already been raised to 67.) And he wants the program privatized into Wall Street-managed personal accounts. (Bush has also said Medicare should be “phased out.”)

Third-place Ben Carson wants to “reestablish the idea that each individual is responsible for their own pension and that government programs like Social Security are only supplemental in nature. … The age at which benefits are distributed should be gradually raised.” Carson more recently said, “What I would propose is that we allow people to opt out of receiving their Social Security payment in lieu of a tax credit.”

Marco Rubio wants to raise the retirement age and means-test benefits. He has not yet offered a comprehensive plan, but has said he wants to convert Medicare into “premium support payments” to use to buy private insurance.

Mike Huckabee, like Trump, differs from his fellow Republicans. He has said, “If Congress wants to take away someone’s retirement, let them end their own congressional pensions — not your Social Security.” During the Republican debate Huckabee said, “One of the reasons that Social Security is in so much trouble is that the only funding stream comes from people who get a wage. The people who get wages is declining dramatically. Most of the income in this country is made by people at the top who get dividends and capital gains.”

Ted Cruz wants to cut benefits, then privatize the system into “personal acocunts” managed by Wall Street.

Carly Fiorina has said, “[L]et’s start talking about raising the retirement age for Social Security.”

Scott Walker also wants the retirement age raised. He says, “We live in a 401K society, we’re ready for reform.” He has not yet offered specifics, beyond saying it needs “significant reform.”

Rand Paul wants to raise the retirement age to 70. He previously proposed “means testing benefits, private accounts, and opt-out” which means younger people can opt out of the system entirely.

Chris Christie wants to raise the retirement age to 69 and means-test to reduce benefits at $80,000 income and stop benefits entirely at $200,000.

Other candidates include John Kasich (cut, privatize), Rick Perry (Social Security is a “Ponzi Scheme,” “Monstrous Lie”), Bobby Jindal (privatize), Lindsey Graham (cut), Rick Santorum (cut benefits, raise retirement age, means test) and George Pataki (raise the retirement age).

Opposed To Voters

Why are so many Republican candidates taking a position that is opposed by a vast majority of the public? Some say that Attacks on Social Security Are Attacks on Women,

In national politics, the war on women isn’t always about denying women the right to choose to end a pregnancy or to have health insurance pay for contraception. It’s also about denying women their financial dignity.

So is Social Security another front in the politicians’ affronts to the lives of American women? “Absolutely,” says Nancy Altman, co-founder of the advocacy organization Social Security Works and co-author of a book with the same name. “Attacks on the program are attacks on everyone, but they are especially attacks on women.”

… women … are more dependent on Social Security for their economic well-being in their final years than their male peers are. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 30 percent of women 65 or older rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income. Men? Only 23 percent are so reliant. And women’s checks are smaller, too. The average retired female worker receives more than $300 less a month from Social Security than a male one.

Viewed all together, this leaves women more likely to suffer from any cutbacks in Social Security, even the most innocent-sounding ones.

But this certainly doesn’t explain the position of noted misogynist Donald Trump, who opposes cutting the program.

Paul Krugman, Republicans Against Retirement, suggests that the Republican candidates (except Trump and Huckabee) are against helping people gain retirement security because they are chasing wealthy donors, who tend to hate Social Security. And, he says,

For the record, these proposals would be really bad public policy — a harsh blow to Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution, who depend on Social Security, often have jobs that involve manual labor, and have not, in fact, seen a big rise in life expectancy. Meanwhile, the decline of private pensions has left working Americans more reliant on Social Security than ever.

This money chase — just a few hundred donors have provided almost half of the hundreds of millions of dollars raised so far in the 2016 presidential campaign — is the likely source of Republican opposition to Social Security and other things our government does to make our lives better.

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