Top contenders for the 2024 presidential election in recent weeks have accused each other of jeopardizing Social Security and Medicare, key entitlement programs for seniors.
The future of the programs has been fodder for endless political debate — and distortions — because of the long-term financial challenges they face.
Social Security’s main trust fund is currently projected to be depleted in 2033, meaning the program would then be able to pay only about three-quarters of total scheduled benefits. Medicare, for its part, is at risk of not having enough money to fully pay hospitals by 2031.
President Biden, former President Donald J. Trump, Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida are among the candidates zeroing in on those vulnerabilities, often by referring to one another’s previous positions.
Here’s a fact-check.
WHAT WAS SAID
“Trump in 2020: We will be cutting Social Security and Medicare”
— Biden campaign in a December social media post that includes a clip of Mr. Trump
This is misleading. The Biden campaign has repeatedly claimed that cutting the programs is one of Mr. Trump’s policies. But while Mr. Trump has in the past suggested he might entertain trims to entitlements, he has repeatedly vowed during his campaign to protect the programs.
In this case, the Biden campaign shared a short clip of Mr. Trump during a Fox News town hall in March 2020 and ignored his clarification at the time.
The clip shows a Fox News host, Martha MacCallum, telling Mr. Trump, “If you don’t cut something in entitlements, you’ll never really deal with the debt.”
“Oh, we’ll be cutting, but we’re also going to have growth like you’ve never had before,” Mr. Trump responded.
The Trump administration immediately walked back his comments and said he was referring to cutting deficits. “I will protect your Social Security and Medicare, just as I have for the past 3 years,” Mr. Trump wrote in a post a day later.
During his time in office, Mr. Trump did propose some cuts to Medicare — though experts said the cost reductions would not have significantly affected benefits — and to Social Security’s programs for people with disabilities. They were not enacted by Congress.
Like other candidates, including Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump has shifted his positions over time. In a 2000 book, Mr. Trump suggested, for people under 40, raising the age for receiving full Social Security retirement benefits to 70. Before that, he said he was open to the idea of privatizing the program, even if he did not like the concept. He no longer advances those positions.
Last January, the former president said in a video that “under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.” But he has not outlined a clear plan for keeping the programs solvent. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Trump suggested last month that the government could avert any Social Security changes by expanding drilling in the United States, but experts say that is not feasible.
“Dedicating current oil and gas leasing revenues to Social Security would cover less than 4 percent of its shortfall, and it would be impossible to fix Social Security even if all federal land were opened to drilling operations,” according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
WHAT WAS SAID
“And unlike Ron DeSanctimonious, we will always protect Social Security and Medicare for our great seniors. He wanted to knock the hell out of Social Security and Medicare.”
— Mr. Trump during a campaign rally in mid-December
This is misleading. While in Congress, Mr. DeSantis supported budget frameworks that proposed raising the full Social Security retirement age to 70, but leaving the early retirement age the same. As a presidential candidate, he has said he would not cut Social Security for seniors but has at times expressed openness to changes for younger people without specifying what those are.
Currently, workers are eligible for their full benefits at their full retirement age, which varies from 66 to 67 depending on year of birth. But recipients can qualify for reduced benefits as early as age 62.
As a Florida congressman, Mr. DeSantis did vote for Republican budget proposals — which would not have changed the law on their own — that supported gradually raising the full retirement age for Social Security to 70. The proposals did not call for changing the early retirement age.
The proposals also called for changes to Medicare, including by eventually increasing its retirement age to 67 or 70, from 65, and transitioning the program to “premium support,” in which the government would provide payments for seniors to shop for various health care plans.
Mr. DeSantis has not made clear his plans for Medicare as he runs for president, but he has often rejected the idea of changing Social Security. “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans, I think that that’s pretty clear,” he said in March.
That said, he has signaled openness to adjusting the program for younger people. In a July interview on Fox News, Mr. DeSantis said, “Talking about making changes for people in their 30s or 40s, so that the program’s viable, you know, that’s a much different thing, and that’s something that I think there’s going to need to be discussions on.”
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
WHAT WAS SAID
“Nikki Haley, she has claimed that the retirement age is way, way, way too low. That’s what she said. So you’ve got a lot of people that have worked hard their whole life. Life expectancy is declining in this country. It’s tragic, but it’s true. So to look at those demographic trends and say that you would jack it up so that people are not going to be able to have benefits. I mean, I don’t know why she’s saying that.”
— Mr. DeSantis on CNN last month
This needs context. Life expectancy in the United States dropped during the coronavirus pandemic, but it is inching back up. And Ms. Haley has only called for changes to Social Security for younger people — not unlike what Mr. DeSantis himself has entertained.
“The way we deal with it is, we don’t touch anyone’s retirement or anyone who’s been promised in, but we go to people, like my kids in their 20s, when they’re coming into the system, and we say, ‘The rules have changed,’” Ms. Haley said in an August interview with Bloomberg. “We change retirement age to reflect life expectancy.”
Ms. Haley did not specify what the new retirement age should be. “What we do know is 65 is way too low, and we need to increase that,” she said when pressed. “We need to do it according to life expectancy.”
Ms. Haley also called for determining benefit adjustments based on inflation, rather than the current cost-of-living calculation, and limiting benefits for the wealthy.
On Medicare, Ms. Haley has proposed expanding Medicare Advantage, under which private companies provide plans and are paid by the government to cover the beneficiary.
Yet for 2023, the government was projected to spend $27 billion more for Medicare Advantage plans than if those enrollees were in traditional Medicare. Experts note that expanding Medicare Advantage while achieving overall savings would require structural changes that would be politically challenging to implement.
“It would require a change in payment policy that would likely run into fierce opposition,” said Tricia Neuman, senior vice president at the health nonprofit KFF and executive director for its program on Medicare policy.
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