Joe Biden and Social Security

January 27, 2020

Dean Baker
Truthout, January 27, 2020

Having worked to protect Social Security for more than a quarter century, it is good to see the growing consensus in the Democratic Party that current benefit levels need to be sustained and ideally expanded. This is a big change from where the party was in the 1990s when many centrist Democrats supported cuts to the program.

It seemed as though the leading Democrats in the presidential race accepted the position that the size of Social Security benefits should be maintained or expanded. However, the recent actions of former Vice President Joe Biden provide good reason to question this assumption.

Through his long political career, Biden has repeatedly indicated his willingness to support cuts to Social Security. For example, he proudly announced his support for a balanced budget amendment in 1995, which he explicitly acknowledged could mean cuts to Social Security.

More recently, he was President Obama’s point man in negotiations with Republicans in Congress over a “Grand Bargain” that would include cuts to Social Security and other programs, in exchange for some increases in taxes on high-income families. The deal was eventually scuttled because the Republicans refused to go along with the tax increases.

The cuts would have taken the form of a change in the annual cost-of-living adjustment, which would have reduced benefits by an average of 0.2 to 0.3 percent annually. While this may sound trivial, this cut would accumulate over time. For example, the cut could accumulate to roughly 3 percent after 10 years, 6 percent after 20 years and 9 percent after 30 years. This could mean a beneficiary in their 90s would be getting benefits that were roughly 9 percent smaller because of the cuts pushed by Biden in his role as President Obama’s lead negotiator.

People can change their views, and this history need not mean that Biden is an enemy of Social Security; however, his recent exchanges with Sen. Bernie Sanders on this issue raise serious grounds for concern. Sanders took the first shot with an ad that highlighted some of the statements Biden made over the years supporting cuts in Social Security.

Unfortunately, one of the statements used by Sanders misrepresented a Biden comment where he actually was being critical of former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plans to cut Social Security. However, there were no shortage of instances identified by Sanders’s campaign in which Biden clearly indicated a willingness to cut Social Security.

Rather than acknowledging his past positions and explaining how his views had changed, Biden denied that he had ever supported cuts to Social Security, even though the public record on this point is clear. He also has made a big point of assuring us that he recognizes the importance of Social Security to the country’s workers and retirees.

These assurances should not count for much. One will hear the same sort of assurances from those explicitly advocating cuts and/or privatizing Social Security.

Back in 2005, I had the opportunity to debate Paul Ryan, who was quite openly advocating the privatization of Social Security. Then-Representative Ryan began his remarks by saying how important Social Security was to American families. He told us how he had been helped by Social Security himself when his father had died while he was still in high school, and the benefits helped him afford college. (Actually, as his high school classmates told me afterward, his family was fairly wealthy, so he didn’t really need the benefits to go to college.)

Anyhow, Ryan had no difficulty proclaiming the importance of Social Security, even as he laid out a proposal to dismantle it. As Ryan explained it, he was actually trying to save Social Security. In this vein, President George W. Bush’s privatization commission was called the “President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security.”

Given this twisting of the language when it comes to Social Security, it is difficult to be impressed by Biden’s assurances that he recognizes the importance of Social Security. It would be far more reassuring to see Biden openly acknowledge his past positions and explain exactly why he no longer sees cuts in Social Security as acceptable.

Biden’s failure to come clean, and to instead attack Sanders for ads that accurately describe his past positions on Social Security are not reassuring. People certainly have grounds for being concerned that Biden might still view Social Security as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations with Republicans. That is not good news for those of us who really do value Social Security.

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