Personal Finance

How seniors and their money would fare under a Trump or Biden presidency

Key Points
  • With just days to go before the presidential election, both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have their eyes on one key demographic: senior citizens.
  • For people ages 65 and up, the fate of Social Security, performance of the stock market and jobs outlook could make a big difference to their bottom lines.
  • Here's how each candidate may help Americans in that age cohort.
A supporter of Donald Trump drives by the Joe Biden rally in the golf cart during President Donald Trump's campaign stop at The Villages Polo Club on October 23, 2020 in The Villages, Florida.
Octavio Jones | Getty Images News | Getty Images

It goes without saying that the outcome of the presidential election will have an impact on all Americans.

That's especially true for seniors, those ages 65 and up, who may see key issues affecting them change based on who occupies the White House.

Both President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are campaigning hard for the support of that demographic.

For evidence, look no further than Florida, where both have made multiple campaign stops.

Biden visited Tampa on Thursday. Among those in the crowd was Ione Townsend, 70, of Plant City, Fla., who serves as chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

"A President Biden will protect Social Security and Medicare," Townsend said ahead of Biden's event. "Seniors better hope that Joe Biden wins this race."

Meanwhile, Trump has worked to drum up his own support in other more conservative areas of the state. Earlier this month, the president visited the Villages, a retirement community in Sumter County, Fla., an area that leans Republican.

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Trump and Biden campaigns make final spending push for Florida's senior swing vote

John Calandro, 74, a resident of the Villages and former chairman of the Republican party in Sumter County, saw Trump speak and said support for the president in the area is "very strong."

"The performance under the president with the markets and a number of things he's done to promote employment, as well as bringing back key manufacturing, all of those things are very important to seniors," Calandro said.

About 20% of the population of Florida is 65 and over. Those votes will help determine whether the state goes to either Trump or Biden, an electoral heavyweight in the overall election.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that Trump has fallen behind with seniors nationally, with 58% for Biden versus 35% for Trump.

The election outcome will have big consequences for seniors all over the country, particularly when it comes to Social Security, Medicare, retirement savings and employment.

Social Security

Social Security's trust funds were already at risk of running dry before the pandemic. Earlier this year, the Social Security Administration estimated its trust funds, which help buttress the system, will be depleted in 2035, at which point 79% of promised benefits will be payable.

Other estimates indicate that could be accelerated by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden has put forward an "ambitious" plan to address the program's financial challenges and expand benefits, said Richard Johnson, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank.

Among the changes he proposes include setting the minimum benefit at 125% of the federal poverty level, increasing annual cost-of-living adjustments, and creating benefit increases for those who have been receiving benefits for at least 20 years.

The changes would be paid for by adding Social Security payroll taxes to those making $400,000 and up. Currently, those taxes – 6.2% each paid by both the employee and employer – only apply to wages up to $137,700 in 2020.

Over time, the changes would increase benefits by about 14%, according to the Urban Institute's assessment. The plan would also close about a quarter of the 75-year long-term funding gap, Johnson said.

But Biden could not put the changes through alone. The plan would have to be approved by both houses of Congress.

"Given all of the other priorities that Vice President Biden has laid out, there's a question as to where this falls on the list of priorities, just because there are so many things that he has talked about," Johnson said.

Paula Orlando, a supporters of Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, waves her flag next to her car during President Donald Trump's campaign stop at The Villages Polo Club on October 23, 2020 in The Villages, Florida.
Octavio Jones | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Trump has left the question open as to what he plans to do with payroll taxes.

Currently, there is an executive order in effect that allows for the deferral of certain employees' Social Security payroll taxes. Those unpaid levies would have to be repaid next year, according to the current terms of the order.

But Trump has said he would forgive those taxes if he's re-elected. Yet others worry he instead will make permanent cuts to Social Security payroll taxes.

"Politically, that would be a very dangerous thing to do to the Social Security program," said Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "To take away earmarked tax would be very destabilizing to the program and would really put benefits at risk."

Seniors are worried about how the actions that are taken now could help or hurt the program.

Benefits haven't kept up with inflation, which has hurt seniors especially now that prices on food and other essentials have gone up, Townsend said.

"There are far too many people who are totally dependent on Social Security," Townsend said.

But Calandro said he believes Trump will be good for the economy and jobs, which will ultimately help improve Social Security's overall soundness.

"The biggest thing that's important to Medicare and Social Security for us is that there will be plenty of people out there working so that those funds continue to flow," Calandro said.

Health care costs

A pharmacist collects medications for prescriptions at a pharmacy.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Both Trump and Biden have talked about lowering prescription drug prices, which could help improve seniors' financial security.

Biden has said he would allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies, which could lower the prices seniors pay, Johnson said.

Biden also supports the Affordable Care Act, which includes benefits to Medicare beneficiaries including eliminating the coverage gap, also known as the donut hole, in the prescription drug benefit and allocating taxes to the Medicare trust fund.

Without the ACA, which Trump does not support, some of those features may disappear, Johnson said.

Less is known about the specifics of Trump's health care strategy. The president has yet to unveil a detailed plan.

A spokeswoman for Trump's campaign pointed to the president's achievements in this area over the past four years.

"President Trump has been a strong leader for seniors by preserving Social Security and strengthening Medicare, not to mention lowering prescription drug prices across the board and making lifesaving medicines like insulin more affordable," Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella said.

Retirement savings

Thomas Barwick

Many seniors are drawing down from the nest egg they have saved for retirement. That means they likely have a vested interest in the stock market doing well.

"President Trump has not laid out any specific plans on retirement savings, other than pointing to how stock market gains help 401(k) balances, which leads to more retirement savings," Johnson said. "That seems to be his priority."

Trump's supporters have taken note of that.

"The fact that the economy is doing well, there are dividends being paid, I think is extremely important to many of us," Calandro said. "That's one of the key things that all of us continue to look at."

Biden's proposals focus on making it easier for low-income workers to save for their golden years.

Today, individuals who contribute to 401(k) plans and other retirement plans get a tax deduction, which tends to favor high-income workers because it reduces their taxable income, Johnson said.

Biden wants to instead put tax credits in place that would be equal to a certain percentage of the amount contributed to a retirement plan.

"That would provide more incentives for lower income people to save," Johnson said.

Employment

Kelvin Murray | Getty Images

Many seniors may be concerned about the job market, either for themselves, their children and grandchildren, or both.

The good news is that data thus far does not point to older workers being disproportionately affected by unemployment, Munnell said.

"But the problem for older workers is, is if they lose their job, it's really hard for them in the best of times to find a new job," Munnell said.

Before the pandemic, there was strong economy, which contributed to a solid demand for older workers, she said. Without a strong recovery, seniors may opt to tap Social Security retirement benefits early to make up for that lost income.

That could hurt them, Munnell noted, because claiming earlier will pave the way for a lifetime of lower benefits than they otherwise would receive if they wait until their full retirement age or to age 70.

Biden's platform calls for strengthening age discrimination laws, Johnson noted, which could help seniors who want to continue working.

A 2009 Supreme Court decision made it so that workers had to prove age was the only factor that led to a job loss, a higher bar to prove age discrimination in the workplace. Democrats in Congress have been trying to address that concern for the past decade, and Biden has said he supports those efforts, Johnson noted.