All that’s bad. But here is the worst part: When combined with his comments that he would like to “terminate” the payroll tax, which funds Social Security, Trump is revealing yet another con. He’s not, as he’s claimed from the day he announced his run for president, going to save Social Security. Instead, Trump is promoting a scheme to weaken the program that keeps a majority of the elderly out of poverty.
And since this is Trump, he’s doing it just when the need for it to offer seniors an income is about to become more pressing than ever. (Also, in true Trump fashion, he picked his moment. This Friday is the 85th anniversary of the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. Talk about a birthday gift.)
According to research recently released by the Retirement Equity Lab at the New School (disclosure: where I serve as an editor for the publication Public Seminar) the covid-19 recession is pushing millions of Americans over the age of 55 into unemployment. They are, it turns out, more likely to lose their jobs than those younger than them. That, in turn, will likely lead to a sudden and unexpected retirement for many.
All of this leads to cascading financial effects, none of them good. People will draw down retirement savings at an age when they are harder to replace. Because older workers are more likely to have health concerns, they are more likely to shell out funds for expensive COBRA health insurance coverage, instead of narrow network but subsidized Affordable Care Act exchange plans. And, finally, they will sign up for Social Security retirement benefits at the first opportunity, at age 62, instead of waiting till they are 66-67, when they can receive full benefits, or 70, when they get a bonus — almost certainly leading to more straitened financial circumstances in old age.
For years, many experts have warned Americans that we are likely on the verge of a retirement crisis. The culprit: the decline of guaranteed pensions and the rise of the 401(k). As it turns out, many Americans did not put aside the recommended 10 to 15 percent of their salary in a workplace tax-deferred account — if they even had one, that is, as many workers lack one altogether. Figures released by Vanguard show the median 401(k) balance for those 55 to 64 is below $72,000. That’s not nothing, but it’s not enough to make people feel secure for more than 20 years of retirement.
One response to this reality? The less-than-accurate conviction of many workers — and not a few advice-givers — that they can work in fulfilling and well-paid positions well past traditional retirement age.
This is, as I’ve pointed out in the past, so much hogwash. All of us — except the very unlucky — will not only get old, but middle-aged, which is when age discrimination starts. Studies show that a majority of people exit the workforce earlier than they expect — sometimes due to health, but often because they are unable to regain their professional footing after a layoff. Age discrimination is an immense problem in almost every single profession, and it impacts women at earlier ages — think 40 — than men.
A more realistic approach than what Trump is offering? Payroll taxes should be increased — most certainly on earned income in excess of $137,700, which is where the social security tax cap is set now. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has contemplated cuts to the program in the past, is now also on record as supporting raising Social Security payments for the low-income, the widowed and those collecting benefits for more than two decades — in other words, the eldest of the elderly — and paying for it by subjecting earnings above $400,000 to payroll taxes.
But Trump is doing the opposite. He’s offering up a poisoned chalice. The pressure to make the payroll tax postponement permanent will be immense, especially as recession-wary Americans are preparing their 2020 returns. But the decision to do so will further undercut the Social Security trust funds. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand that will put the popular program in almost existential danger.