The two-part Democratic presidential debate highlighted a number of policy issues candidates want to tackle: undocumented immigrants, climate change, the trade imbalance with China and the rising cost of college and health care.

To be sure, that’s a long list, and all of it is important stuff. But fixing Social Security should have gotten some prime-time play. It was a huge missed opportunity for the candidates to talk about how they would handle the impending shortfall in what is the primary source of retirement income for millions of Americans.

Fifty-seven percent of retirees rely on Social Security as their primary source of income, according to a Gallup poll this year. In another Gallup survey released last year, 44 percent of Americans worry “a great deal” about Social Security’s stability. Twenty-eight percent worry “a fair amount.” Not surprisingly, lower-income Americans worry more (53 percent).

AD
AD

“An important element of Social Security is its disproportionate impact on retirees with lower incomes,” Frank Newport, a Gallup senior scientist, wrote recently in a Gallup post titled “Social Security and American Public Opinion.” “Essentially, the lower the overall income a retiree reports, the more important Social Security is as a component of that income. An analysis of an aggregate of Gallup data over the past 10 years shows that 78 percent of retirees making less than $30,000 in annual household income say Social Security is a major source of their retirement funds, along with 65 percent of those making $30,000 to less than $50,000. For these people, apparently, Social Security is the bulk of their retirement.”

You may have heard that Social Security is broke. That’s not exactly accurate. But the system is broken.

The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund (OASI), which pays retirement and survivor benefits, will be unable to pay full benefits in 2034, according to the 2019 trustee report for the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Without a fix, OASI will have only enough continuing tax income to pay 77 percent of scheduled payments.

AD
AD

“The huge baby boom generation is reaching retirement age (many are already there), older people are living longer, and there are fewer younger people entering the workforce to pay into the system,” Newport wrote.

The second Social Security program, the Disability Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, is in slightly better shape. The fund will have enough incoming money to cover 91 percent of scheduled benefits. However, its reserves will be depleted in 2052.

The two programs will have enough incoming money by 2035 to pay only 80 percent of benefits. The total annual cost of the two programs is projected to exceed total annual income -- for the first time since 1982 -- in 2020, according to the trustees’ report to Congress. Social Security paid benefits of nearly $989 billion last year.

AD
AD

The present administration certainly hasn’t made protecting Social Security a priority. So, Helaine Olen, a contributor to Post Opinions, was right in writing that the moderators of the Democratic debates should have raised the issue.

“The Social Security Trust Fund is on track to run out of money in 2035. That doesn’t mean Social Security is going ‘bankrupt’ or that benefits would cease. But it’s quite possible they would be cut if nothing is done,” she wrote. “At the same time, retirement savings are an increasing issue, with projections showing large numbers of younger baby boomers and a majority of Generation X are not on track to be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

AD

Asking the question about Social Security during the debates would have given voters a chance to hear how the candidates plan to address the shortfall in the system, Olen said.

AD

For example, as she points out, former vice president Joe Biden has raised the possibility of means-testing Social Security. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation this year that would do away with the cap on how much income is subject to the Social Security tax. That threshold is $132,900.

If you missed the debates or watched but can’t recall what was said here are the transcripts:

AD

Social Security was not mentioned at all during the first debate. It was referred to just a few times in the second and only in relation to other issues — health care and undocumented immigrants paying into the system.

“They’ve increased the life span of Social Security because they have a job, they’re paying a Social Security tax,” Biden said during the second debate panel.

AD

There might not be a crisis with Social Security but it’s a coming storm that should not be ignored any longer.

“The trustees recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way in order to phase in necessary changes gradually and give workers and beneficiaries time to adjust to them,” said Nancy A. Berryhill, acting commissioner of Social Security.

AD

The long-term financial stability of the Social Security Trust Funds is in jeopardy and waiting to fix it will only make it harder to implement a solution.

Read more:

Your Thoughts

What do you want to hear from the presidential candidates about Social Security? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line put “Social Security.”

AD

Retirement Rants and Raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise?

AD

If you haven’t retired yet, what concerns you financially?

You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In last week’s newsletter, I discussed the legacy of an inheritance.

I asked: Should you leave an inheritance to your children?

Barbara Findlay from Indiana wrote, “I agree that giving your children too much throughout life is not beneficial to their independent growth. I gave my children a good education. It should be more than enough.”

AD
AD

“I’ve always felt that whatever estate I have (just savings because I own no property) should go to my four children,” wrote Chuck Gribble from Minneapolis. “They all do rather well, and don’t need inherited wealth to get along. But both of my parents died penniless and I don’t want to repeat that.”

One reader wrote: “My kids have no money saved and can’t afford to do so. In my house, charity begins at home. We have chosen to live modestly so we are able to leave money for our children to retire eventually.”

“I saw what happened when my grandmother (who inherited sizable estates from her two husbands) died and tried to divide her estate according to who could afford what,” another reader wrote. “To my wealthier uncle, she left the large house and land on the big lake where she lived and where we all vacationed. And to my low income dad, she left stocks and bonds. Her vast collection of Asian artifacts she left to a museum. On the face of it, that looks reasonable. My dad did not have the money to pay the taxes and upkeep on that house. My uncle did. But the division was not considered fair by my dad. He and my mom were angry about it and hardly spoke to my uncle after that. And we were never invited to that lake house . . . where we all had such good memories growing up. The bottom line for me is that you can never predict the consequences of the wealth that you leave to family. Too often, it ruins family relationships. Consequently, I do not want to guess myself what damage I may do leaving my own estate to family. We have given the kids, nieces and nephews generous college funds and figure that it’s up to them to make it after receiving a good education. After that, I want to give the rest to a trusted charity because I can be so much more certain that the money will be used for a good cause and that the charity will be grateful.”

AD

Read more:

Subscribe and stay informed

If you’re viewing this post online sign up to automatically receive Michelle Singletary’s newsletters right into your email box: “Your Retirement” on Mondays and “Personal Finance” on Thursdays

Read and share Michelle Singletary’s Color of Money Column on Wednesdays and Sundays in The Washington Post. You may also see the column in your local newspaper.

Follow Michelle Singletary on Twitter @SingletaryM and Facebook.