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How Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden plans to increase Social Security benefits

Key Points
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently leading among Democratic candidates in the polls, wants to make Social Security solvent.
  • The presidential hopeful also wants to boost benefits for retirees, particularly those who have been receiving checks for more than 20 years, had their spouse die or are living close to the poverty line.
  • Biden joins other Democratic candidates who are also calling for expansion of the program. Those proposals should challenge Republicans to come up with their own plan, according to one advocate.

When former Vice President Joe Biden recently announced his plans for older Americans, he joined his fellow Democratic presidential candidates in calling for the expansion of Social Security.

"We should be increasing, not decreasing, Social Security," Biden said at a recent AARP Iowa forum. "It's within our capacity to do so."

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during the National Education Association (NEA) #StrongPublicSchools Presidential Forum in Houston, Texas, U.S, on Friday, July 5, 2019
Sergio Flores | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Biden is currently the lead candidate among Democratic primary voters, according to a July 22 poll from Morning Consult. Biden tops the list with 33%, followed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with 18%; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., with 14%; and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at 13%.

Biden's campaign calls for making Social Security solvent. Currently, the program's trust funds are expected to be depleted in 2035, at which point it will pay just 80% of promised benefits. His campaign also calls for preventing any cuts to retirees who are receiving benefits.

To achieve those goals, Biden's plan calls for raising taxes on the wealthy by "asking Americans with especially high wages to pay the same taxes on those earnings that middle-class families pay."

Notably, the plan specifically rejects proposals to privatize the program or introduce means testing, whereby benefits would only be provided to individuals below a certain level of income or wealth.

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Biden's plan would improve benefits for individuals in several key ways.

It calls for increasing payments to individuals who have been receiving retirement benefits for at least 20 years. The idea is aimed at protecting those older individuals against having to deplete their savings.

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Biden's plan would also set a minimum benefit so that all workers who put in 30 years of work would be guaranteed a benefit equal to at least 125% of the federal poverty level.

The plan would also increase survivor benefits for widows and widowers by about 20% more per month. Surviving spouses currently receive 100% of a deceased worker's benefit as long as they are at full retirement age or older. But many individuals take those benefits before their full retirement age, which reduces their Social Security checks. Plus, if the spouse who died was receiving reduced benefits, the survivors benefit is based on that amount, and therefore also reduced.

Biden's proposal also calls for letting public sector workers, including teachers who are not eligible for Social Security, to begin receiving pension benefits sooner than the 10 years that many of their plans currently require.

More specific details, such as what a new tax rate would be, are not included in the proposal.

Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, a group that is advocating for Social Security expansion, said the plan does not necessarily need more details — at least for now.

"I think his plan is great and it does not need more specificity at this point," Altman said.

The leading Democratic candidates back expanding — not cutting — Social Security benefits, she said.

"It sharpens the debate," Altman said. "I don't think you need the specifics until the Republicans are willing to say what they will do, or if they will do nothing and let the program remain with a shortfall."

A congressional bill proposed by Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., also calls for raising taxes to pay for benefit increases. That bill, the Social Security 2100 Act, drew criticism in a House Ways and Means Committee hearing last week from Republicans. Critics of the plan claimed it could place an unfair financial burden on millennials.