[Washington Post] In recent days, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been attacking Joe Biden for flirting with the idea of Social Security cuts over the course of his career; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has now joined Sanders in criticizing Biden. Biden is hitting back angrily over a video that takes some of his comments on the topic out of context.
So let’s put aside the criticisms and counter-criticisms and focus on three questions: What’s the problem with Social Security? What do the candidates want to do about it? And how is this likely to play out in the general election?
We’ll do the wonky part first, but to understand it you have to remember that there exists a center-right consensus that deficits are a dire threat to the republic, and it’s worth making painful cuts to government services to reduce them. It’s hard to overstate how powerful this idea has been in Washington; there are entire organizations, well-funded by wealthy people and corporations, whose mission is to spread panic about deficits and urge cuts to entitlement programs (with perhaps some tax increases here and there).
When it comes to Social Security in particular (which has its own funding apart from the rest of the federal budget), the deficit scolds argue that the program is “going broke,” a falsehood meant to convince people that if radical steps aren’t taken soon — including benefit cuts — the program will be unable to provide benefits for retirees.
But the program is not “going broke.” With the retirement of the baby boom generation, Social Security is now giving out more in benefits than it takes in, but this isn’t some kind of unforeseen emergency. It’s exactly what we knew would happen, and it’s the reason the Social Security Trust Fund exists: to make up the shortfall.
According to the latest Social Security trustees report, that trust fund will be exhausted in 2035 (for old-age pensions; the fund for disability benefits has enough reserves to last until 2052). At that point, if the projections are accurate, the program will still be able to provide about three-quarters of benefits.
Getting three-quarters of your scheduled benefits is worse than getting 100 percent. But it’s not nothing. So how do we fix it?
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