Social Security

Biden's Platform Calls for Big Changes to Social Security. Here's What Could Be on the Table

The COVID-19 pandemic is not helping Social Security's trust funds, which were already hurting before the recession

VALERIE MACON | AFP | Getty Images
  • President-elect Joe Biden's campaign plans for Social Security include expanded benefits and more payroll taxes that fund the program for high earners.
  • The platform comes at a time when Social Security faces questions as to how restore its solvency amid a national pandemic and provide targeted benefit increases for those who need them.
  • Here are the changes that lawmakers could consider as the new administration takes office.
President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 9, 2020.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images
President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 9, 2020.

President-elect Joe Biden ran on a platform that included proposals to shore up Social Security benefits while extending the program's solvency.

How his administration and the next Congress take shape will help determine just how many of those changes he may be able to put through.

To experts and advocates for the program, the timing could not be more crucial.

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"We're long overdue for this conversation, and it's causing great uncertainty for people who are either on the program now or going to be on the program soon," said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"That's not how we should be running one of the most important safety net programs in the country," he said.

For Biden, now comes the hard part of pushing for bipartisan reform.

Big reform efforts

The Covid-19 pandemic is not helping Social Security's trust funds, which were already hurting before the recession.

Having fewer workers in the economy contributing the payroll taxes that fund the system has helped to further deplete the reserves.

The Social Security Administration projected in April its funds could be depleted in 2035, at which point only 79% of benefits would be payable. Those estimates did not take the coronavirus pandemic into account.

Recent estimates from the Bipartisan Policy Center indicate that, in a worst-case scenario, the disability fund could run out as soon as 2023 or 2024. The old age fund that pays retirement benefits could be depleted anywhere from six to eight years after that, Akabas said.

Such developments would force the question as to how Congress wants to address the issue, he said.

Washington lawmakers have already started to put forward proposals.

Biden's Social Security platform includes key benefit increases. Eligible workers would get a guaranteed minimum benefit equal to at least 125% of the federal poverty level. People who have received benefits for at least 20 years would get a 5% bump. Widows and widowers could receive about 20% more per month.

Biden also proposes changing the measurement for annual cost-of-living increases to the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly, or CPI-E, which could more closely track the expenses retirees face.

To pay for the changes and extend the program's solvency, Biden would apply Social Security payroll taxes to those making $400,000 and up. In 2020, only wages up to $137,700 are subject to those levies.

Other Democrats have proposals that similarly expand benefits and raise taxes without implementing cuts.

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., speaks during an event to introduce legislation called the Social Security 2100 Act. which would increase increase benefits and strengthen the fund, on Capitol Hill Jan. 30, 2019.
Mark Wilson | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., speaks during an event to introduce legislation called the Social Security 2100 Act. which would increase increase benefits and strengthen the fund, on Capitol Hill Jan. 30, 2019.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., has a bill called the Social Security 2100 Act, which has 208 co-sponsors.

On the Senate side, a bill called the Social Security Expansion Act was co-led by Vice president-elect Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

"There's a fair amount of unanimity within the party," said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, a group that advocates for the expansion of benefits.

"The arguments are kind of on the margin about how much to expand and what's the best way to fund the program … although even there there's a lot of overlap," she said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said in recent interviews that he sees an opening for Congress to address Social Security and other safety net spending.

Notably, the Republican senator has proposed a bill called the TRUST Act to form bipartisan committees that could come up with solutions to fast track changes to fix the funds for Social Security, Medicare and the nation's highways.

Social Security advocates fear that approach would lead to benefit cuts.

Akabas said a broader discussion needs to happen, regardless of the format.

"With each passing year, it's becoming harder and harder to maintain the core self-financing structure of the program," Akabas said.

Smaller fixes

Some politicians have advocated for more targeted changes to be included with upcoming legislation.

Biden's coronavirus stimulus plans call for increasing Social Security checks by $200 per month during the pandemic, an idea that has also been proposed by other politicians.

Two House Democrats have separately proposed putting an emergency cost-of-living adjustment in place, which would bring next year's benefit increase up to 3% from 1.3%.

Others are hoping lawmakers address an unintended consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic that could result in lower retirement benefit calculations for people who turn 60 this year.

"There's a chance they could fix that in a standalone piece of legislation," Akabas said.

But the stimulus-related benefit increases could be tougher to pass.

"It's very difficult to open up the Social Security Pandora's box without getting into the broader solvency issues that the program has," Akabas said.

Leadership changes

New York businessman Andrew Saul testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Oct. 2, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
New York businessman Andrew Saul testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Oct. 2, 2018.

It remains to be seen whether the presidential leadership transition will also trigger changes at the top of the Social Security Administration, which administers benefits.

Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul's six-year term expires in 2025. He was appointed to the role by President Donald Trump. Saul could decide he wants to resign, or Biden could ask him to, Altman said. Alternatively, he could finish his term.

There are also other political appointees to the agency. When Trump took office, he asked those employees to turn in their resignations. It remains to be seen if Biden will do the same, Altman said.

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