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To understand the energetic back-and-forth between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Social Security at Thursday’s debate, you’ve got to pay attention to the verbs.

Sanders wants to expand the entitlement for current beneficiaries. Clinton wants to protect the fund for future generations.

At the debate, the two candidates didn’t agree on whether they even disagree.

“And here’s an area where Secretary Clinton and I believe we have a difference,” Sanders said, before launching in an explanation of his Social Security plan.

“Well, Senator, look, I think we’re in vigorous agreement here,” Clinton retorted a few minutes later, after detailing her own Social Security plan.

So what gives? Is there daylight between the two Democratic candidates on Social Security or not?

There is. But it’s mostly in how they’d go about paying for it.

Sanders wants to get rid of the current tax cap that limits how much Americans can be asked to pay into Social Security. As of now, all income above $250,000 is exempt. Sanders’ plan would make it so that anyone making more than $250,000 a year pays the same percentage of their income as those in lower tax brackets. It would also add a 6.2% Social Security tax on investment income above $250,000.

Clinton has refused to say that she would eliminate the tax cap outright, but she’s been a little more cagey on details. She says she would increase revenue to Social Security by “asking the wealthiest to contribute more.” She has also nodded at “options to tax some of their income above the current Social Security cap, and taxing some of their income not currently taken into account by the Social Security system.”

Sanders is trying to nail Clinton on that ambiguity.

Clinton, for her part, is trying to massage it into obscurity. “I think—I think it’s fair to say we don’t have a disagreement,” Clinton said at the debate. “We both believe there has to be more money going into the Social Security system. I’ve said I’m looking at a couple of different ways, one which you mentioned, Senator, but also trying to expand the existing tax to passive income that wealthy people have so that we do get more revenue into the Social Security Trust Fund.”

Clinton is avoiding to committing to Sanders’ Social Security tax plan perhaps because she would like to avoid tying her hands in the future. Or perhaps because it pencils out to a pretty huge 12.4 percent increase for the rich, according to Vox.

As for the two candidates’ plans to expand Social Security, there are only minor differences.

Sanders plans to increase benefits for most Social Security recipients by an average of $65 per month, and boost the minimum amount that any beneficiary receives, so that it better reflects cost-of-living standards. His campaign says that people making less than $16,000 a year would end up receiving $1,300 more a year.

Clinton, meanwhile, plans to target the poorest beneficiaries, including elderly women, particularly those who are single, divorced, or widowed, who have much higher poverty rates than their married or male counterparts. She would increase the amount that widowed women could expect from their spouse’s Social Security and allow women who work full-time as caretakers, either of children or sick and elderly family members, to receive what’s known as a “caregiver benefit.”

What Clinton and Sanders agree on wholeheartedly is that they want, at the very least, to protect the program that exists now from any effort to privatize the fund, reduce benefits, or raise the age at which Americans receive the entitlement. In short, all of the plans advanced by their adversaries on the Republican debate stage.

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Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at

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