Where the Presidential Candidates Stand on Retirement | Retirement

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Key Takeaways:

  • The Social Security retirement trust fund and Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund will both be depleted within the next decade if no action is taken.
  • Joe Biden proposed increasing taxes on high earners to shore up the two trust funds.
  • Donald Trump said he supports the programs but has provided no details about how he plans to address the trust fund shortfalls.
  • Independent and third-party candidates have various approaches to retirement topics, but none are expected to win the presidency and implement their policies.

This November, voters will head to the polls to decide who should be president for the next four years. And while debates rage over topics such as border security, immigration and abortion, people shouldn’t overlook the importance of retirement issues.

The Social Security retirement trust fund will be depleted in 2033, according to current estimates, and only be able to pay out 77% of retiree benefits after that time. The Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund is expected to run dry in 2031, meaning only 89% of Part A costs can be covered.

While Congress must pass legislation to address these shortfalls, the president often sets the tone for discussions and must sign any bill into law. What’s more, the presidential-led executive branch generally has some leeway in implementing bill provisions.

“Congress can’t specify every detail of every law,” says Justin Buchler, associate professor in the department of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “Anything not specified is up to the executive branch.”

Here’s a look at how the 2024 presidential candidates would address major retirement concerns.

Social Security

Shoring up the Social Security trust fund could be accomplished by increasing payments into the fund, reducing benefits paid out of the fund or a combination of the two.

In his 2024 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden stated his opposition to cutting Social Security benefits or increasing the retirement age. He does support having high-income households “pay their fair share.”

Currently, the Social Security tax limit is $168,600. That means workers only pay Social Security taxes on income up to this amount. While Biden did not provide specifics in his address about what would constitute a fair share for wealthier Americans, his position is presumably to raise or eliminate the Social Security tax limit.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump has not provided a clear position on Social Security. His campaign website states he “will always protect Medicare, Social Security and patients with preexisting conditions,” but it does not provide any further details.

During a March interview with CNBC, the Republican candidate said, “…there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting.” While many interpreted that to mean Trump was open to Social Security and Medicare cuts, he said in a later interview that he would never do anything to “jeopardize or hurt” the two programs.

“Donald Trump doesn’t speak in much policy detail,” Buchler says. Instead, he tends to speak generally on topics. His political party, however, seems to be leaning toward reducing Social Security benefits.

In their fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, the Republican Study Committee has recommended “modest changes” to the Social Security benefit formula and the retirement age for future retirees. It also recommends moving toward a flat benefit amount.

Medicare

As with Social Security, Trump has not articulated a clear plan for addressing the looming shortfall in the Medicare trust fund. However, some say his past actions indicate a willingness to reduce retiree benefits.

“There is also a track record of both Trump and the House Republicans going back over the last couple of decades calling for increases in qualifying ages, cuts to benefits, moves to privatize these entitlement programs and efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act,” said Chris Orestis, president of Retirement Genius, an online retirement resource based in Portland, Maine, in an email.

In 2019, while president, Trump signed an executive order on “Protecting and Improving Medicare for Our Nation’s Seniors.” While the order states its goal was to provide more plan choices to seniors, some saw it as a move toward privatizing the Medicare system.

“Last week’s executive order emphasizes so-called market-based approaches, signaling that President Trump envisions an even bigger role for the private sector in Medicare,” wrote the Center for American Progress in an analysis at the time.

Biden’s approach to the Medicare shortfall has been to propose increasing the Medicare tax rate on incomes greater than $400,000 from 3.8% to 5%. His 2025 budget proposal also calls for funds from the net investment income tax to be deposited into the Medicare trust fund. In 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act gave Medicare the ability to negotiate the price of some high-cost drugs, and Biden’s budget proposal would expand that ability.

Medicare dental coverage is a critical, but often overlooked, retirement issue,” said Melissa Burroughs, policy director at the Washington-based CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, in an email. “Medicare does not cover dental care, making it unaffordable and out of reach for many Medicare enrollees.”

She noted that Trump has not indicated any support for adding dental care to Medicare coverage, but Biden did include it in his Build Back Better legislation in 2021. However, it was not included by Congress in the Inflation Reduction Act which was the final outcome of those legislative discussions.

Other Retirement Issues

In terms of other retirement issues, such as changes to retirement savings accounts, the two main presidential candidates have said little. Both have signed legislation in the past, though, with provisions that are favorable to retirees and workers saving for retirement.

In 2022, Biden signed the SECURE 2.0 Act which further increased the age for required minimum distributions, expanded automatic enrollment into workplace retirement plans and allowed employers to match worker student loan payments with retirement plan contributions, among other provisions.

One concern for younger retirees may be Trump’s stated opposition to the Affordable Care Act. The act established a health insurance marketplace and government subsidies for those who need to purchase their own health insurance. Many early retirees rely on the marketplace to find coverage until they become eligible for Medicare at age 65.

“The most recent polling data and analysis points to a shift in support from seniors toward Biden in this election,” Orestis said. “They are paying close attention to what has been said and done over the last few years which is painting a pretty clear picture for them that’s not hard to read.”

Independent and Third-Party Candidate Positions on Retirement

Of course, Biden and Trump won’t be the only names on the ballot this November.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has received the lion’s share of press as an independent candidate for president. However, he is currently only on the ballot in seven states and has no stated Social Security or Medicare policies on his campaign site.

“His only known policy position that would seem to impact seniors is a health care issue of his adamant opposition to vaccines, which appears to be one of his primary policy goals,” Orestis said.

Among third parties, the Libertarian Party and Green Party will both be on most ballots this November. Neither have formally selected their presidential candidate yet.

The Libertarian Party platform states that it would phase out the current Social Security system and replace it with a voluntary private system. While the party platform does not specifically reference Medicare, it says, “We favor a free market health care system.”

The Green Party states that it opposes the privatization of Social Security. The party also supports Medicare for All, a proposal to create a national health care system that would cover everyone.

Ultimately, though, the current political system in the U.S. virtually guarantees that either a Republican or Democratic candidate will be elected president. Buchler says the reality is this: “Third-party and independent candidates just don’t matter.”

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