Skip to Content

Here's what Trump and Biden got wrong about Social Security during the first debate

By Alessandra Malito

Both candidates missed the chance to discuss plans to fix the program

Social Security, the program on which millions of Americans rely for retirement income, is faltering - but during the first presidential debate of 2024, both President Biden and former President Trump missed the opportunity to talk about how they'd fix it.

The two trust funds that support Social Security's retirement and disability benefits are expected to run out of money in about a decade, at which point benefits would be cut by about 20%. This could be a calamity for millions of U.S. retirees. As many as half of people aged 65 and over depend on Social Security for 50% of their family income and 25% of people rely on it for 90% of their family income, according to the Social Security Administration. More than 70 million Americans received benefits from one of Social Security's programs in 2022, the agency also said.

Congress has never let the program fail to pay full benefits, but legislators have not yet come to a conclusion on how to fix the system. In 1983, the last time the program faced a significant financing crisis, lawmakers waited until the last minute to shore up the program.

During the CNN-hosted debate on Thursday, both candidates had the chance to talk about how they would save the program. Instead, they attacked each other and shared unsubstantiated fears.

More than halfway through the debate, co-host Jake Tapper began his Social Security question by mentioning the benefit cuts beneficiaries may see in the future and asking candidates for one specific step either would take to keep Social Security solvent. Biden answered first, saying he would raise taxes on the wealthy. He mentioned workers stop paying into the system when they reach an inflation-adjusted income cap of $168,600 and that he would not raise the cost for anybody under $400,000. "After that, I begin to make the wealthy begin to pay their fair share," he said. His answer echoed a proposal that would apply a payroll tax on individuals with earnings more than $400,000.

Candidates had two minutes to answer a question, but Biden still had more than a minute - 82 seconds - left when he was done talking about Social Security, Tapper told him. Biden followed up by saying Trump wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare.

When it was Trump's turn to answer the question, he started by saying he had never seen a politician lie like his opponent, and that the current president was "destroying" Social Security. "Because millions of people are pouring into our country, and they're putting them on to Social Security; they're putting them on to Medicare, Medicaid," Trump said. "They're putting them in our hospitals. They're taking the place of our citizens."

Trump did not comment on Biden saying he intends to cut Social Security benefits, though he has fought those claims in the past. Trump's campaign has shared little information on what he would do about Social Security during the leadup to the 2024 election. During his first campaign in 2016, Trump said he would not cut the programs, but during his presidency in 2019, he proposed a budget that would slash funding to social insurance programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

See: Trump's Social Security problem isn't his words, it's his math

Debate viewers criticized both candidates for their answers to the Social Security question. Andrew Biggs, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in Social Security policy, said in a Twitter thread that Biden's proposal alone couldn't make the program solvent. It would extend Social Security's life by 10 years but would likely have to be coupled with more reform to see true improvement.

Biggs also said Trump had "mostly dodged the question," and that his claim about undocumented immigrants was false.

"In general, undocumented immigrants can't collect Social Security benefits," he said. "But since many work and pay Social Security taxes, this results in a net financial benefit to Social Security." A worker's status can change that, however, such as if the person has a work permit and qualifies with the same number of credits as any other citizen paying into the program.

Research has shown immigrant workers could have a "disproportionately positive impact" on the trust fund, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. A report from the American Academy of Actuaries found similar results - that immigration can have a "positive impact on the finances of the program."

Critics took further aim at Donald Trump, saying he has not shown support for Social Security.

"President Biden's positions on protecting and defending Social Security and Medicare are longstanding - he hasn't deviated from them - and former President Trump is someone who keeps getting closer to talking about cutting benefits," said Max Richtman, president and chief executive of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "There are two people running: one is a friend of Social Security and seniors, and one is not."

Jessica Hall contributed to the reporting for this story.

-Alessandra Malito

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

06-28-24 1448ET

Copyright (c) 2024 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Market Updates

Sponsor Center