More than a decade ago, George W. Bush made waves with his plan to allow younger workers to save a portion of their Social Security money in personal retirement accounts. The proposal was decried by some as an attack on the system, and then-President Bush's approval rating sank as he toured the country promoting the idea.
The plan was eventually abandoned, and that marked the last time a major overhaul of the Social Security system was attempted. However, politicians have continued to look for ways to shore up the program which could, under the current funding model, run out of cash in less than 20 years.
"From 2009 to 2013, almost all the talk was about how much are we going to cut," says Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University and co-founder of the organization Social Security Works. "No one was saying to expand."
However, political observers say the tide is shifting with both major presidential candidates in 2016 pledging not to cut Social Security and one proposing a small expansion. Details are slim at the moment, but that could change heading into the fall.
"Both campaigns are still in the process of figuring out what they want to say," notes Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. "Perhaps as we get into the debates there will be more discussion."
For now, here's what we know about the major party candidates' plans for Social Security.
Clinton Embraces Expansion
The 2016 Democratic Party Platform calls for the expansion of Social Security, a position shared by the party candidate, Hillary Clinton. According to some, this embrace of a Social Security expansion has been a relatively recent development. "Democrats, frankly, ran very tepid on Social Security [in the past]," Kingson says. "They haven't, until very recently, championed Social Security."
Kingson, a Democrat, credits Bernie Sanders for that shift. He says that while Clinton had previously discussed a "balanced solution" to Social Security funding -- something Kingson argues is code for cuts to the system -- she now promotes modest increases in benefits for widows and women who have served as caregivers. What's more, her official position includes taxing income above the current Social Security cap to bring more money into the program.
While these positions don't go as far the reforms proposed by Sanders, who wanted to increase benefits for nearly everyone as well as change how cost-of-living increases are calculated, Clinton's proposal may be enough to solidify her support with the party base. "She's very much in line with the Democratic platform," says Lauren Wright, a political scientist and author of "On Behalf of the President." "Democrats are more cohesive than Republicans at this point."
Her support of a program expansion could also have an impact on undecided voters. "If Hillary Clinton does emphasize Social Security, that might be an opportunity to win over some older voters," Farnsworth says.
Trump Breaks from the GOP Platform
While Democrats propose expanding the program and taxing wealthy individuals to do so, the 2016 Republican Party Platform takes a different approach. It says all options to preserve Social Security should be explored. The only thing the platform takes off the table is a tax increase. Instead, the "power of markets to create wealth" should be relied upon to secure the future of the system.
Although the party has traditionally focused on a need to overhaul the system, the issue doesn't seem to be getting much play this year from Republican nominee Donald Trump. "Generally, it's the Republicans who say there is a [Social Security] crisis," says Joseph M. Schwartz, professor of political science at Temple University. "It's part of Trump's campaign, but it's not a big part."
Trump's official website, as of this writing, doesn't include a specific section on Social Security policy. The candidate told AARP he would make the program financially sound by ensuring the economy was robust, something he says can be accomplished through a combination of tax cuts, immigration reform and reducing government waste.
For some, that seems to be a thin answer to the Social Security funding shortfall. "Donald Trump has avoided the issue," Wright says. "He diverges considerably from the GOP platform." But others argue this may be the most logical approach for a candidate who is working to bring together a divided party base. "He's not in a position to put up a big government solution like what's been put up by Hillary Clinton," Farnsworth says.
Congress, Other Issues to Play a Role
Of course, presidential candidates can promise anything they like, but proclamations on the campaign trail don't always translate into real policy changes, as former President Bush discovered.
A bigger factor in the fate of Social Security may lie with those running down the ticket in Senate and House races. Currently, both chambers are controlled by Republican majorities, although some election observers predict the Senate may flip to the Democrats after the election.
However, even if that were the case, Clinton would likely face staunch opposition in the House to any proposal that includes an expanded Social Security tax. Trump may also find himself at odds with Republican House leadership if he hopes to maintain the status quo, especially since some in Congress, such as Speaker Paul Ryan, have indicated their support for reforming the system. Regardless of who wins, "it seems like Social Security gridlock is what we'll see," Farnsworth says.
The future of Social Security may be also be affected by other policies and initiatives pursued by the presidential candidates. For example, Schwartz notes one of the major structural challenges to the system is the ratio of workers to beneficiaries. Bringing more workers into the system -- whether that be through adding currently exempt government workers or legalizing undocumented workers -- could result in a much-needed influx of cash.
"If you had a path to citizenship, that would do a lot to shore up the system," Schwartz says.
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