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Social Security A Targeted Issue For GOP Candidates


Social Security may not sound like a sexy topic, but it's one of the most popular government programs ever, and it has become an issue in the presidential campaign. This was Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey in the Republican debate on Fox last month.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: If we don't deal with this problem, it will bankrupt our country or lead to massive tax increases, neither one that we want in this country.


SIMON: So before we hear more from the Republican candidates in the debate next week, we thought we'd check in with NPR's Ina Jaffe. She covers aging and occasionally joins us for a conversation that we call 1 in 5 for the one-fifth of the population that will be 65 years old or more in just 15 years. Ina, thanks for coming back with us.


SIMON: Is the future of Social Security as dire as Governor Christie presented it?

JAFFE: Well, it's true that if Congress does absolutely nothing, the Social Security Retirement Trust Fund goes broke in around 20 years. That doesn't mean the benefits go away, but they'll have to be cut by about 25 percent. And, you know, the vast majority of retired people get at least half of their income from Social Security, so this is something that hits home for a lot of voters.

SIMON: What suggestions have, not just Governor Christie, but some of the other Republican candidates made?

JAFFE: Well, a few of them are pretty specific and mostly on the side of cuts. Christie, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham - they want to raise the retirement age. And they want to means test benefits - that's reduce or deny them for wealthier people. Mike Huckabee doesn't want tax cuts. He thinks Social Security can become solvent by switching from the payroll tax to a consumption tax - like a sales tax. And at the debate, he explained it like this.


MIKE HUCKABEE: The money paid at consumption is paid by everybody, including illegals, prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers - all the people that are freeloading off the system now. That's why...

JAFFE: To some people, this sounds kind of like get to work, drug dealers. Grandma needs the money. But - but, you know, it's a lot more specific than most of his fellow Republican candidates.

SIMON: What about some of the other candidates?

JAFFE: Well, they're not saying a lot. John Kasich, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz - I couldn't find anything about Social Security on their websites, though Cruz has talked about cuts and partially privatizing the system. And Marco Rubio calls for reform on his website, but he doesn't say what that is.

SIMON: Why do you think they might be so vague?

JAFFE: Well, maybe it's because they don't want to upset their voters. The majority of people over 65 vote Republican. This could be why Donald Trump opposes cuts. This is what he said to the Conservative Political Action Conference a couple of years ago.


DONALD TRUMP: As Republicans, if you think you're going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in any substantial way, and at the same time, you think you're going to win elections, it just really is not going to happen.

JAFFE: And, you know, that was a couple of years ago, but he still is against cuts in Social Security benefits.

SIMON: What are the Democratic candidates saying?

JAFFE: There are Democratic candidates that have made raising taxes to save Social Security major parts of their platforms. Take a listen to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines last month.


BERNIE SANDERS: We are not going to cut Social Security. We're going to expand Social Security.


SANDERS: And we're going to do that by lifting the cap on taxable income.

SIMON: Now, is that a euphemism for raising taxes, lifting the cap on taxable income?

JAFFE: It's a very specific way of raising taxes, Scott. Basically, better-paid workers don't pay anything into Social Security after they've reached about $118,000 of income. So Sanders says if that cap is lifted and those people keep paying into the system, Social Security will be solvent into the distant future, and there'll even be enough money to expand benefits.

SIMON: Where does Hillary Clinton stand on that?

JAFFE: She's against cuts of any kind. She says she'll explore ways to enhance benefits. And she's recently sounded open to raising revenue, but she hasn't committed to anything. So maybe she'll say more when the Democrats have their first debate next month.

SIMON: NPR's Ina Jaffe from NPR West, thanks so much for being with us.

JAFFE: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."
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