Unless you listened carefully, you might have missed the expanse of daylight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders when asked about their plans for Social Security at the CNN Democratic debate Tuesday.
It's a gap that is alarming people who are fighting to protect and strengthen Social Security – just as the program is getting renewed attention because of today's expected announcement that Social Security recipients won't be receiving a cost-of-living adjustment in their checks in 2016.
Clinton was asked by CNN's Dana Bash whether "Senator Sanders' plan to expand Social Security" was "something that you would support."
"Well, I fully support Social Security," Clinton began. "And the most important fight we're going to have is defending it against continuing Republican efforts to privatize it."
Case closed? Not quite. Bash pressed on: "Do you want to expand it?"
That yes-or-no question got neither. "I want to enhance the benefits for the poorest recipients of Social Security," she said, singling out "particularly widowed and single women" who didn't make a lot of money during their careers. "I will focus on helping those people who need it the most," she concluded.
What alarmed Social Security activists is that underneath Clinton's positive language – "fully support," "enhance" – appears to lie support for policies, including from leading conservatives like Pete Peterson – that would actually undermine Social Security.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Ways and Means Committee chairman who is being wooed to take over as House speaker, was broadly attacked for proposing a plan that singled out Social Security's "poorest recipients" for protection. Ryan proposed "progressive price indexing" that would reduce benefits for the top 70 percent of wage earners while maintaining benefits for the bottom 30 percent. When Ryan first proposed this in 2010, coupling this with a plan to divert Social Security funds into stock market accounts, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that "the result would be a system in which Social Security is very unattractive to affluent people ... These changes would risk undermining the broad-based support that Social Security now enjoys."
Douglas Elmendorf, the former Congressional Budget Office director who will be dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, this week proposed a Social Security plan that was less radical than Ryan but along the lines of what Clinton seemingly would support. "I would not increase Social Security benefits across the board, as some have advocated, because I think scarce federal resources should be used in more targeted ways," he wrote. "Instead, we should focus on reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits for high-income beneficiaries and raising payroll taxes on workers with high earnings."
Elmendorf's plan is a left-right hybrid. Progressive advocates for Social Security have argued in favor of lifting the cap – currently about $117,000 – on the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes. Some conservatives have questioned whether wealthy people should get the same retirement benefit as a retired low-wage worker, and several Republican presidential candidates have called for means-testing Social Security much like other assistance programs. Even Donald Trump, who has been outspoken in protecting Social Security benefits for working-class people, embraces cutting benefits for the wealthy. "I have friends that are worth hundreds of millions and billions of dollars and get Social Security. They don’t even know the check comes in,” he said at a New Hampshire forum earlier this week.
Lynn Stuart Parramore wrote in 2012 that she understood why "well-intentioned liberals" end up embracing Social Security policies that would treat the "vulnerable" differently from everyone else. But she warned that these schemes are "a sneak attack on vital programs meant to weaken and eventually destroy them" and "a highly effective political strategy for getting liberals and progressives to act against their own values and interests."
Chief among her arguments are the point that Social Security benefits are not "handouts to the needy." They are "benefits that people pay for as they work. They are also smart social insurance programs that spread risk across society in order to protect everyone at rates no private insurance scheme, with its much smaller risk pool, could touch."
Like your insurance policy, when you file a claim the size of the check you receive is not based on your income or net worth; it's based on the amount of coverage you purchased. Car insurance companies that paid less in claims to Mercedes owners, presumably because they are wealthier than owners of a working-class Chevy Cruze, would lose high-end customers – and eventually would collapse.
There are real threats to Social Security that Clinton could have called out in Tuesday's debate.
There are reports this week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants cuts in Social Security and entitlement programs in exchange for support for increasing the debt ceiling next month. The fact that there will not be a cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients underscores a fundamental flaw in how benefits are calculated: the particular spending patterns for seniors, particularly in health care, aren't captured in the index used for adjusting Social Security payments. Finally, as this petition from Social Security Works warns, if Congress does not act soon, the Medicare Part B premium and deductible are expected to increase significantly for older adults and people with disabilities in 2016, and Social Security recipients won't have the extra dollars to cover those costs.
The last thing we need right now is to fear a Trojan horse from a presidential candidate who says she "fully supports" Social Security.