What will the presidential election mean for Social Security?

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Social Security, the so-called “third rail” of politics, is ever-present in federal elections. And usually, it features in presidential elections. 

Democrats accuse Republicans of seeking to slash seniors’ benefits. Republicans, meanwhile, pressure Democrats regarding the tax increases necessary to keep Democrats’ promises to pay all benefits in full, despite Social Security’s $24 trillion-plus long-term funding shortfall

But the 2024 presidential election is bringing us something different: Former President Donald Trump, unlike many Republicans, is pledging never to cut Social Security benefits. President Joe Biden shares that pledge. But unlike many Democrats, Biden is promising never to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 annually. This bipartisan meeting of the minds on Social Security has just one drawback: It’s not at all clear how either Biden or Trump would keep Social Security solvent. 

Social Security reform came up in Biden and Trump’s recent presidential debate, although their exchanges produced more heat than light. When Biden was asked by debate moderator Jake Tapper how he would address Social Security’s insolvency, which is just 10 years in the future, Biden replied that he would “make the very wealthy begin to pay their fair share.” 

“Right now, everybody making under $170,000 pays 6% of their income, of their paycheck, every single time they get a paycheck, from the time of the first one they get when they’re 18 years old … The idea that they’re going to — I’m not — I’ve been proposing that everybody, they pay — millionaires pay 1%-1%. So no one after — I would not raise the cost of Social Security for anybody under $400,000. After that, I begin to make the wealthy begin to pay their fair share by increasing from 1% beyond, to be able to guarantee the program for life,” Biden said during the debate.

Let me translate that into English: Currently, Americans pay Social Security payroll taxes on all earnings up to $168,600, and they earn benefits based on those same capped earnings. A millionaire pays the same total taxes as someone earning $168,600 but also receives the same total benefits. That is by design, as former President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted Social Security to resemble a private insurance plan, not a welfare program. 

What Biden would do is start applying the Social Security payroll tax on earnings above $400,000. That would bring on additional taxes but presumably would also require Social Security to pay higher benefits in return. Biden claimed his plan would “guarantee the program for life.” That’s not true. While Biden’s Social Security plan has never been formally submitted or scored, despite having first proposed it in 2020, it would likely address only 50-60% of the long-term deficit. 

When Tapper asked Trump the same question, the former president quickly went on the attack. Biden, he said, “is going to single-handedly destroy Social Security. These millions and millions of [immigrants] coming in, they’re trying to put them on Social Security.” 

This claim is essentially untrue. It is true that legal immigrants can participate in Social Security. And in general, because Social Security is a liberal program and immigrants have lower average incomes, they receive benefits that exceed their taxes. However, their children and grandchildren would also pay into the program, creating a small net gain. Undocumented immigrants often do pay into Social Security but can’t legally collect benefits, so they’re a more straightforward benefit to Social Security’s finances. 

What Trump never detailed is what he would do to fix Social Security. On this topic, he has always been vague, saying at times that higher economic growth would help, it would, but only a little, and that general revenues could be transferred to Social Security to keep it solvent–true, but those revenues have to come from somewhere. 

Despite their differences, it is notable how similar Biden’s and Trump’s positions on Social Security actually are: Both pledge never to cut benefits, but neither has proposed the tax increases needed to turn their pledges into reality. 

This is a fairly extraordinary situation. On a high-profile, hot-button, partisan matter of great importance to the federal budget, taxpayers, and retirees, the two party’s presidential candidates have largely the same position. That’s good news. 

The bad news is that this position is fiscally irresponsible, as the longer we continue to promise full Social Security benefits without paying for them, the more difficult the eventual reform plan will be. 


Biden has had four years to propose a Social Security plan and never has done so. Trump was equally silent during his four years in office. I don’t expect the next four years to be much different, regardless of who takes office on Jan. 20, 2025.

As an ordinary American thinking about their retirement, what does the 2024 presidential election mean for Social Security? The answer is “not much.” And that’s the problem. 

Andrew G. Biggs is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. During the George W. Bush administration, he served as the principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration.