Trump wants to eliminate payroll taxes. That could end Social Security.

Without replacement revenue,

Social Security benefits could end in 2023,

and Social Security disability benefits would end sooner in 2021.

Over the years, Democrats have repeatedly warned supporters the GOP wants to kill Social Security, often in connection with fundraising efforts. Many Republican politicians have brushed off these claims as scare stories. Voters have been conditioned to not take them seriously.

In March 2020, Trump proposed suspending the Social Security and Medicare payroll tax (known as “FICA”) through the end of the year, as part of a package of stimulus measures to keep the economy afloat during the Covid-19 crisis.

In August 2020, as election campaigning began, he suggested he wanted to “eliminate” the tax permanently. (This is very unlikely while Democrats control part of Congress, but Trump has gone around Congress before.)

Congress (not the president) has temporarily suspended FICA taxes in the past for economic stimulus purposes, but made up the lost revenue to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds from the operating budget (i.e., other taxes). It has never suspended FICA taxes without making them up.

If that happened next January — let’s say Trump was re-elected and Republicans retook control of Congress — and immediately suspended or eliminated the FICA tax, as Trump has promised to do, and didn’t make up the revenues, then Social Security benefits would end in 2023 and Social Security disability benefits even sooner, in 2021.

The disability benefits are paid to people with a work history who are prevented from working by a serious and long-term medical condition lasting over 1 year. They’re a form of insurance, which employers and workers pay for via a portion of their payroll taxes.

This time, the warning isn’t coming from Democrats in a partisan context, but from the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, a nonpartisan professional. He issued that analysis in a response to a request by Senate Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called Trump’s proposal “reckless.” Millions of Americans, especially senior citizens, have no other income. Social Security also acts as “depression insurance” by ensuring tens of millions of consumers have income unaffected by collapsing employment. Nearly all Social Security checks are spent immediately, not saved or invested.

But it’s not clear that’s where Trump is going with his proposal. NBC News said, “The president has said legislation to cut payroll taxes would specify that the money comes from the general fund.” But that would make it much easier to cut benefits in the future, than if the programs are funded by a dedicated tax, as they are now. A Republican president and GOP-controlled Congress, such as existed from 2017 to 2019, could choose to underfund the programs or eliminate their funding altogether.

The GOP has been hostile to Social Security since it was enacted in the 1930s, and had opposed passage of Medicare in the 1960s, but hasn’t messed with the programs, beyond tinkering around the edges, even when they controlled the government because of their popularity. Social Security was long called “the third rail of American politics,” i.e., “touch it, and you die.”

Former President George W. Bush and former House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to “privatize” the programs in the early 2000s, but backed off after heated protests from senior citizens at rambunctious townhalls around the country. The “third rail” still looked very much like a hot wire at that time.

Social Security has been called “the greatest anti-poverty program of all time,” and is widely considered one of the most successful and popular government programs ever.

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