The Issue We’re Forgetting

Jo Ann Jenkins is CEO of AARP

The next president must commit to a timeline for making Social Security solvent

Politicians frequently ignore important issues that matter to voters, but not usually ones that could win them votes. Yet, if the first two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate are anything to go on, Social Security is such an exception.

Despite its centrality to tens of millions of American voters, Social Security wasn’t mentioned by either candidate a single time in Sunday night’s debate. The same thing happened in the first debate: about 17,000 words were spoken by the candidates and debate moderator; conspicuously missing among them was “Social Security.” The vice presidential debate was marginally different, although not any better. A critical issue being paid the barest of lip service seems somehow worse than it being ignored altogether.

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Social Security directly touches more than 230 million people in the U.S. (via more than 60 million S.S. recipients and 170 million future beneficiaries who pay into the system with every paycheck). Meanwhile, the Social Security system faces a revenue cliff that, if left unaddressed, will usher in a nearly 25%, across-the-board benefits cut for all recipients. It would be an economic life-changer for tens of millions of seniors, and not in a nice way. While it’s still a number of years off, the revenue shortfall faced by Social Security transcends mere theory or ‘what-if’ scenarios. It’s a mathematical certainty.

In light of that, what are the presidential candidates telling voters about how, or even if, they would keep Social Security strong? Well, just about nothing.

Ignoring Social Security is a disservice to voters, but it’s also a lost opportunity for presidential candidates to win over voters.

Think of the points a presidential candidate would score addressing this most-unicorn like of subjects: something everyone knows and cares about, and which truly transcends partisan divisions. Democratic and Republican Social Security beneficiaries value their S.S. checks equally; as future beneficiaries Green voters and Libertarians pay into the system with every paycheck on an equal basis. Slice it any way you like, it’s no cliché to say that Social Security belongs to everyone.

Presidential candidates are foolish to ignore Social Security, and what they’d do to keep it strong. (A note to the candidates: saying you are “committed” to Social Security does not constitute a plan for keeping it strong. Everyone is committed, in one way or another, to Social Security—that’s kind of the point.)

What would mark progress? Frankly, it could be as little as the candidates proactively stating that if they are elected president, they will in their first year in office commit to a timeline for making Social Security solvent by the end of their first term—think of it as putting a stake in the ground.

There is one presidential debate left. In it, let’s hope the moderator pins the candidates down on Social Security. Voters are listening and what they hear may shape how or—in the case of some—if they vote.

Jo Ann Jenkins is CEO of AARP

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