In the news: Better housing policy could save us all money. Why are we ignoring it?

October 12, 2016

This post originally appeared on

Housing for America’s lowest-income families rarely ever makes the front page and has been noticeably absent from both candidates’ stump speeches. Yet 81 percent of respondents in a recent MacArthur Foundation poll said housing affordability is a problem in America, and 63 percent said presidential candidates aren’t paying enough attention to the issue. Housing is both a cost-saving safety net and a platform for individuals and families to improve their health, education and economic outcomes. When people cannot afford housing, it undermines families’ ability to reach the next rung on the economic ladder and prevents older adults from aging safely and securely.

Today, nearly 20 million renter households qualify for federal rental assistance, but only one in four receives it. There is simply not enough money appropriated by Congress to cover everyone who qualifies for rental assistance. In contrast, all qualified homeowners filing an itemized tax return receive the mortgage interest deduction, regardless of their income. The United States needs a more balanced housing policy that invests equally in homeownership and rental housing.

Over the next 15 years, the demand for rental housing will continue to grow. The number of senior renters is projected to double from 5.8 million to 12.2 million households. More than a quarter will pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent. The federal government has to be an essential part of solving this affordability challenge. Developing housing that America’s poorest families can afford to rent just isn’t possible without government subsidies.

Given the current and growing need, we must create a new generation of rental assistance focused on the most vulnerable households. We must leverage housing as a platform for service delivery and access to opportunity by targeting expanded rental assistance to families with children earning less than 30 percent of area median income, people with disabilities and older adults on fixed incomes.

Targeting these vulnerable populations pays dividends. Stable housing generates cost savings in other federal programs: Evidence suggests that for homeless families that face affordability challenges, rental assistance is more effective than costly services, such as psychosocial interventions and therapies. In fact, targeting housing assistance to extremely low-income families is the most cost-effective strategy for reducing childhood poverty in the United States. In addition, connecting housing to services for older adults, such as health-care coordination, has led to reductions in Medicare spending. Permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities has demonstrated reductions in homelessness and in costly emergency room visits and hospitalizations often covered by Medicaid.

Housing affordability is a long-term, systemic problem that has become a crisis, especially for America’s poorest families and individuals. This problem touches nearly every community in the United States. It will only worsen as demand for affordable rental housing increases and the supply of federal rental assistance does not.

Increasing investment in federal rental assistance has bipartisan support, yet neither candidate nor political party has made it an explicit part of their policy platform. Now is the time to move it to the top of the agenda.


Most US immigrants are already skilled

October 11, 2016

While the subject of immigration and refugees has been often raised in this year’s presidential campaigns, it has largely focused on potential threats imposed by immigrants, approaches to immigration enforcement for unauthorized immigrants, and on security checks for refugees admitted to the country.

For example, in Sunday’s presidential debate, the only immigration topic raised was on the number of Syrian refugees who should be admitted to the United States, and whether refugees are properly vetted to prevent admission of potential terrorists.

Meanwhile, following a recent National Academies report on the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration, immigration experts and stakeholders have been debating broader reforms to the US immigration system, including questioning the proper skill mix of immigrants admitted to the United States.

The National Academies report concludes that immigrants have little effect on the long-term wages and employment of US-born workers’ wages and employment, and to the extent there are short-term effects from lower-skilled immigrants, these are limited to some small negative impact on the wages of prior waves of immigrants and US-born workers without a high school diploma.

The report also finds that the effect of high-skilled immigrants is to increase both employment and wages of all native-born workers (both high and low skill) and that these immigrants often expand the economy.

And the topic did come up once on the campaign trail, in Donald Trump’s immigration speech in Arizona in late August where Trump, influenced by the immigration position of his running mate, Mike Pence, called for selecting immigrants based on their likelihood for success and their “merit, skill, and proficiency.”

Indeed, the country is long overdue for a serious discussion about the selection priorities established in our legal immigration system, which most stakeholders agree is not serving our national interests. But in doing so, policymakers should take note that the education levels of US immigrants have shifted over the past several decades such that most are already skilled.

As shown in the graph below, the educational attainment of recent US immigrants has increased rapidly over the past 40 years. In 1970, over half of recent immigrants had less than a high-school diploma. In 2012, 53 percent of new immigrants had some college education, and 16 percent had a graduate degree.

This figure includes all foreign-born individuals: those who entered through the legal employment-based system, those entering through family sponsorship, those on longer-term temporary visas, refugees and asylum seekers, and unauthorized immigrants.

Educational attainment of recent immigrants

Comparing immigrants’ educational attainment with that of US natives shows that immigrants are more likely than US-born individuals to have a college degree and are more likely to have less than a high school diploma. As a result, the average educational attainment of immigrants has not quite converged with that of US-born workers.

But in looking just at those ages 25-34, who are in their early working years, US-born residents and new immigrants now look very similar in their average years of schooling.

Average years of educational attainment, US-born and immigrants

Whenever a future Congress and future president are ready to seriously discuss the skill mix the country desires in new immigrants, it is vital that the conversation starts with an accurate understanding of where we stand. 


Why we should all pay attention to Hillary Clinton’s mental health plan

October 7, 2016

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton recently released a comprehensive agenda on mental health. The plan was well received by the nation’s leading mental health groups, including the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Mental Health America. Outside of that community, however, Clinton’s plan was barely noticed, despite the fact that unattended mental illness, trauma, and their consequences are profoundly intertwined with many issues dominating the news today.

Why such an ambitious plan on such an important subject would go largely unnoticed is fairly obvious; in an election consumed by huge political questions and outsized characters, few in the media had the time or will to pay attention to the details. But they should, because mental illness has been woefully ignored in America for decades, is costing us billions of dollars annually, and along with addiction, is at the center of a major public health crisis that is affecting us all.

The situation is especially dire for people with serious and persistent mental illnesses, who die up to 20 years earlier than other Americans. They are far more likely to land in jails, emergency rooms, or on the streets than in a respectful, well-coordinated, recovery-oriented health system.

Each week police across the country are called to handle psychiatric emergencies—crisis situations that often end with people Tasered, shot, or dead. Suicide rates are rising and fewer psychiatrists are accepting insurance payments of any kind. It’s no wonder that one expert recently concluded that “the US is now probably the worst place in the developed world to have a severe mental illness.”

Clinton’s multifaceted plan addresses many well-known problems with our current mental health system: the need for better early intervention and prevention (including suicide prevention); the need to fully integrate care for mental health and addiction disorders into regular primary care; the need to address longstanding critical shortages in behavioral health providers, including greater use of certified peer support specialists and telemental-heath; the need to expand and improve community-based treatment options; the need to train law enforcement and other first responders in safe appropriate de-escalation and crisis response skills; and the need to sustain the recovery of people with mental illness with better employment and housing supports.

Anyone working within or alongside the mental health system in this country, and certainly anyone touched by mental illness–including friends, families, neighbors, teachers, employers, coworkers, service providers, and community civic- and faith-based leaders–would no doubt have important additions to this extensive list.

While comprehensive, Clinton’s proposal risks being just another plan. It reads like a list of ingredients but with no accompanying recipe or picture of the final dish. We have seen many such plans before: the US Surgeon General’s landmark report in 1999, the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health in 2003, and the Institute of Medicine’s Quality Chasm report in 2006.

We have also had dozens of public awareness campaigns, spent billions of dollars, and made huge investments in brain research, and still people with serious mental illnesses are no better off. The next plan needs to be different: at its foundation, it needs a unifying vision that can drive real improvements in the lives of real people all across the country.

In a future post, I will shine a light on some places that have made it work and ask whether these examples can point the way to solutions for one of our nation’s most vexing problems.


In the news: Social Security must be fair for everyone, not just retirees

October 6, 2016

This post originally appeared on

No one should assess Social Security policy in isolation. What is fair in Social Security must relate to what is fair for the national budget as a whole.

Congressional Budget Office projections indicate that by 2026 we’ll be 21 percent richer, and that tax revenues will rise at a slightly higher rate. That means we stand before an ocean of opportunity. But of the expected $850 billion in additional real revenues, about 150 percent (or about $1.3 trillion) is committed entirely to increasingly expensive payments to Social Security, health care, and interest on the debt. And as a result of these commitments, almost anything that represents investment—in our children, infrastructure, or the basic functions of government—takes it on the chin.

Even as revenues grow, the number of workers available to pay for Social Security benefits is falling rapidly, meaning that either benefits must be cut, taxes increased, or both. Every delay puts more of the cost on the young.

Social Security maintains a design built around an economy and family structure of the past. People aged 65 now live about six years longer and retire even earlier than they did in 1940 when the system first paid benefits. That means families like Clinton’s, Trump’s, and mine will be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars more in lifetime benefits than they would have when the system was first created, while many future elderly will still be left in poverty.

So what must be done? Slow down and reorient the growth in benefits scheduled for future retirees. A typical couple retiring today gets more than $1 million in lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits; millennials are unrealistically scheduled to get $2 million. That growth can be slowed without being stopped and shifted more toward those who are truly old with low- to moderate-incomes.

While Social Security’s long-recognized shortfalls inevitably mean someone must pay, those with above-median incomes are the ones with the money.

Still, no Social Security benefits need to be cut for those currently retired. To do better for those elderly with median or lower lifetime incomes, we should raise minimum benefits and give credit for raising children. We should also fix absurd rules around spousal and survivor benefits and other sources of inequity.

The current system discourages work in late-middle age, something that is no longer easily affordable and which reduces economic growth, personal income, and tax revenues. Congress should reduce Social Security’s natural disincentives for work both by adjusting the retirement age as we live longer and saving a larger share of lifetime benefits for later ages, when health needs rise and work is less possible.

As lifespan increases, Social Security now promises a typical newly retired couple aged 62 an average of more than 28 years of benefits (today, one of them is likely to make it to 90 years of age). That’s more than enough; there are greater societal needs than the desire for more retirement years.

Finally, the tax issue. While some broadening of the Social Security tax base is possible, government needs to concentrate on raising revenue for high priorities apart from Social Security: our growing national debt, and vital investments such as education, infrastructure, and support for working families. Campaigns are about giveaways, but true reform requires looking at what must be done and how, whether we want to or not.


For infrastructure, candidates’ plans still leave many holes in the wall—some bigger than others

October 6, 2016

Americans feel the wide gap between needed infrastructure investment and the funds available for it. Families in Cedar Rapids, Iowa face flooding, children in Flint, Michigan are still drinking bottled water, and Washington, DC commuters face regular breakdowns in public transit.  

So it’s no surprise that the presidential candidates have started talking infrastructure. Clinton released her plan almost a year ago. Trump’s announcements last month about his plan to “build the next generation” of infrastructure provides us with the first opportunity to compare.

How much of an investment?

The shared sentiment in both plans is that the infrastructure gap is a major current and future crisis, and that it’ll take a lot of money to fix. Clinton proposes $300 billion in total investment over five years starting in the first 90 days of her term. She supplemented that proposal with related ones of different costs, such as expanding residential solar energy production.

Trump is thinking even bigger. He proposes to “at least” double Clinton’s proposed investment—a value that would come closer to meeting the expected gap and match former candidate Bernie Sanders’s infrastructure proposal.

Both candidates’ platforms would ostensibly yield the expected usual returns from infrastructure investments: jobs, improved services, broader service access, reduced transactional costs, improved household finances and health, and the overall productivity benefits to the country.

But Clinton and Trump’s proposal similarities end at the big-ticket purchase.

What does this investment get us?

Clinton has prioritized fixing existing transportation (filling in the potholes), expanding public transit and consumer broadband, and modernizing freight transport, airports, energy grids, and water supply and waste distribution. Included in this list of individual infrastructure pots is a more global reconsideration of how current formulas allocate federal funding to better target local needs. She also proposed earmarking $50 billion of the $300 billion to traditionally underserved communities after the Flint water crisis. My colleague, Tracy Gordon, discussed Clinton’s plan last year.

In comparison, Trump painted a broad brushstroke of need among “roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, seaports, and airports.” His campaign has promised a detailed plan since last month’s announcement, but has not released one. If the recent debate provides any clues about Trump’s infrastructure priorities, though, airport modernization may be an early priority.

How do they pay for it?

Clinton’s plans rest squarely on public resources, with the $300 billion preliminary investment embedded in her wider tax and expenditure plans. She proposes $275 billion in direct spending, plus a $25 billion infrastructure bank advised by an independent board of experts to approve lending and loan guarantees that could leverage another $225 billion in financing. One proposed source of the $300 billion would be a tax overhaul for companies with foreign assets.

Trump proposes taking advantage of current low interest rates to issue infrastructure bonds—essentially borrowing money to cover the proposed bills. Presumably the impending proposal would detail just how these bonds would be issued and repaid.

What’s ahead?

The next step we may see is Trump’s campaign releasing more details on what and how he proposes spending infrastructure dollars allowing additional comparison between his and Clinton’s plan.

An additional complexity is the difficulty in getting any major spending initiative approved by future congresses. This challenge will be difficult to overcome for either candidate—and it’s one that neither plan takes into account yet.


Six million Americans are not allowed to vote

October 4, 2016

State laws restrict about 6 million Americans from voting. As of 2010, 5.85 million citizens experienced what this country’s colonial predecessors would have called “civil death”: the loss of voting rights following a felony conviction.

Early Americans were sentenced with civil death only following crimes that were related to voting or that were especially heinous. But 21st-century citizens can lose the franchise for committing any one of a much longer list of felonies. They vary in severity, are different in each state, and include resisting arrest, graffiti causing property damage over $1,000, kidnapping, and murder.

Three quarters of those affected by disenfranchisement laws are not in prison or jail—they are community members who have completed their sentence or are on probation or parole.

Disenfranchisement of individuals with felony charges disproportionately affects people by race and state. Across the United States, 1 in 13 black American adults cannot vote. Black Americans comprise nearly 38 percent of those who do not have the right to vote, but 13 percent of the entire US population.

Disenfranchisement laws are determined at the state level, so the rights of those who have been convicted of felonies to vote depend on where they were sentenced or live.

Maine and Vermont stand alone in placing no voting restrictions on individuals based on felony convictions. In 13 states, voting is prohibited by default even after individuals have reentered the community and are no longer on probation or parole. While some of these states have limited waiting periods after which voting rights are reinstated automatically, in others individuals must undergo an application process to request their right to vote be restored.

States that do not allow those on probation to vote are likely to have large numbers of disenfranchised individuals, because more Americans are on probation than are on parole, in prison, and in jail combined.

Disenfranchisement in the United States mapThis map is derived from data collected by The Sentencing Project, updated as of May 2016.

Why does felony disenfranchisement matter? It can affect the outcomes of elections and the individuals themselves. 

Research suggests that the population that lacks the right to vote may have had the ability to change a number of past elections, including the Bush-Gore presidential election in 2000.

Voting also has a positive impact on people. Civic participation, including voting, is a valuable component of successful reintegration for those returning to communities. Some evidence suggests that individuals with criminal records who vote after their first offense are less likely to commit additional crimes or be incarcerated than those with records who do not vote.

People reentering communities want to vote—in fact, 84 percent of respondents to a survey conducted in Ohio indicated they would vote if allowed. And Americans support giving individuals with felony convictions the right to vote.

The disproportionate impact of disenfranchisement across race, state, and sentence creates inequalities, and is heightened by the fact that voting can support reintegration and is associated with lower rates of reoffending and incarceration. Perhaps policymakers should examine the evidence about the impact disenfranchisement has on the individuals it affects.

Currently, right to vote based on past mistakes hinges largely on where one lives in this country. Is that something our society will continue to accept?


From TaxVox: Trump’s child care tax breaks would mostly benefit families who need them the least

September 21, 2016

This post originally appeared on TaxVox.

With great fanfare, Donald Trump has proposed a new plan to help families pay for child care. However, the proposal, which is a revised version of an idea he rolled out in August, would mostly benefit high-income families who need government child care subsidies the least. For those who need it the most, such as low-income married couples with a single earner, there is much less to Trump’s plan than meets the eye.

His plan has three major pieces: a child care savings account, a new deduction that could even help high-income families with no paid child care, and a separate credit for some low-income families.

First, let's look at the dependent care savings account. Yes, we already have one in the tax code, although few people use it. Firms offer the plans to less than one-third of all US workers. High income families tend to benefit the most. (Middle income families tend to benefit from the child care credit and low-income families benefit from neither.)

Trump wants to double-down on the savings account idea, however. Families can contribute up to $2,000 per account – even if a child has not yet been born. No other tax-advantaged savings plan would be as generous. Contributions would not be taxed and accounts would grow tax-free. It would be like the best of a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA wrapped into a single account.    

Some very high-income families will be very excited about this new tax shelter. But while low-income families could get a match of up to $500 on a $1,000 contribution, Trump has left out many key details such as when the government would make the match and how long a worker would have to keep the money in the account in order to qualify. Some low-income families, presumably, would not have enough money to take advantage of these accounts. Plus, those facing very low tax rates would receive little tax benefit from the accounts.

Next, Trump is proposing an above-the-line tax deduction for child care expenses. The maximum deduction would be based on the average cost of child care in the taxpayer’s state. (No, we do not know if this calculation would vary by age of child – a large factor in determining actual costs.)

It makes some sense to avoid taxing people on expenses associated with going to work. But Trump’s plan would also give a deduction to parents who incur no child care costs.

The way Trump has designed his plan, benefits from the deduction would go disproportionately to high-income families. For starters, many low-income families already pay no federal income tax. Their income is below their standard deduction and personal exemptions or they already have credits that offset their taxes owed. Thus a new deduction does nothing to raise their after-tax income.

If they do owe income tax, they pay at the 10 or 15 percent rate, and the deduction saves them just 10 or 15 cents on the dollar. For a top-bracket taxpayer, a deduction reduces their tax liability by 39.6 cents on the dollar.

To address that problem, Trump offers the third piece of his plan, a special benefit for very low-income families that would increase an eligible family’s EITC by almost $1,200 per year.

As explained here, families would get a credit worth up to half of the payroll taxes paid by the lower-earning parent. This is important. While the campaign makes a point of saying the deduction goes even to stay-at-home parents, it's not so for low-income couples where one parent stays at home.

Keying the credit to the lower earning spouse means that if you’re low-income and one spouse doesn’t work – you get no credit (since the lower-income spouse owes $0 in payroll taxes). The campaign says if you are eligible as a single parent or a family with two working parents and earn $31,200 – you would get the maximum credit of $1,200. That’s a credit of a paltry 3.8 percent – hardly enough to make a dent in child care costs.

I already lament the confusing nature of the two child care tax benefits we currently have. And Trump would add three more.  

Finally, no column on child care tax benefits would be complete without mentioning that childcare costs are typically incurred over the course of the year. Thus, a benefit that doesn’t come until taxes are filed offers little help to cash-constrained families. Trump might be talking about helping people pay for child care, but higher income families clearly stand to gain a lot more than their low-income peers.


Pence pays little in federal taxes thanks to ineffective, regressive education tax credits

September 13, 2016

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence’s recently released tax returns attracted attention for how little tax he paid: just $6,956 in federal income tax on $115,526 in total income, a rate of 6 percent. Pence’s tax bill would have been 72 percent higher had it not been for $5,000 in higher education tax credits enacted under Presidents Clinton and Obama, which have been increasingly demonstrated to be ineffective and regressive.

Tax credits that help offset the tuition paid by college students and their families have been in place since 1997, and were significantly expanded in 2009. These credits are available to married-couple families with incomes up to $180,000 ($90,000 for single-parent families), with varying formulas and eligibility rules for each of the credits. They totaled $17.5 billion in 2013, more than half the size of the Pell grant program for low-income students.

The availability of these tax credits to families with relatively high incomes combined with the fact that children from higher-income families are more likely to go to college means that the credits disproportionately benefit higher-income households. An analysis of the 2009 tax returns of households with 19- and 20-year-olds by George Bulman and Caroline Hoxby showed that the top third of families in terms of income (those making more than $70,000) reaped 62 percent of the benefits of these credits. Families in the middle third got 31 percent. The bottom third of families—those making less than $30,000 per year—got a paltry 7 percent.

The regressive distribution of education tax credits among families with traditional-age college students is offset to some degree by the use of credits by older college students, who tend to come from lower-income families. And the distribution of benefits might be tolerable if the credits at least accomplished their goal of getting more people to enroll in and graduate from college. But Bulman and Hoxby also find that the tax credits have zero or very small effects on college enrollment and the type of college attended.

The ineffectiveness and regressive nature of federal education tax credits appears unlikely to change. A new study found that providing families with better information on the tax credits had no impact on their likelihood of applying to or enrolling in college. In other words, the ineffectiveness of the tax credits at promoting educational attainment does not appear to be due to a lack of understanding about their existence or how they work.

Higher education tax credits are politically popular, likely due to the fact that they are distributed to a wide range of families in terms of income. That may be why neither of the 2016 presidential candidates has released a plan to reform or eliminate them. Such a change may only be possible as part of a broader bipartisan effort at tax reform led by liberals who desire a more progressive distribution of education benefits and by conservatives focused on reducing government waste of taxpayer dollars.


“We, the people” includes immigrants

September 2, 2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump summarized his point of view about immigration in a speech in Arizona this week: “There is only one core issue in the immigration debate, and that issue is the well-being of the American people.”

Trump presented a clear “us” versus “them”: the American people on one side, and immigrants on the other. The problem with this rhetoric is that the American people are by definition comprised of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. One in four Americans currently are first- or second-generation immigrants. And even those in the third and higher generation very often live with foreign-born family members, or work, study, pray, or parent alongside immigrant community members.

immigration visualization

Among the 13 percent of American residents who are immigrants, the majority are in the United States legally (74 percent). The largest subgroup of legal immigrants, 42 percent of all foreign-born, are naturalized US citizens who have passed an English and civics exam and sworn their allegiance to the country.

Legal permanent residents (green card holders), who most often intend to stay in the country, make up 28 percent of all immigrants, and those on temporary visas comprise less than 5 percent. The remainder or 26 percent of all foreign-born residents (around 3 percent of the total US population) are not authorized to be living in the United States.

The undocumented are also inextricably connected to US citizens and legal immigrants. They share households with an estimated 8.7 million US citizens and legal immigrant family members. A majority of undocumented immigrants have been in the country for 10 years or more, and have woven themselves into the fabric of US communities.

Simple dualities, “us” versus “them,” do not capture this reality of communities all over the United States, where Americans have more and less direct immigrant ties. In the Los Angeles metro area, nearly 60 percent of children have a foreign-born parent, while in the St. Louis metro, that share is 8 percent. Some of the most economically vibrant areas of the country are those with highest immigrant shares, while some of those areas with low immigrants and economic strain are clamoring to entice immigrants to join their communities.

Nationally, immigrant workers make up one-sixth of our workforce, and are disproportionately likely to be entrepreneurs, contributing to the vitality of the country. One-quarter of students in US schools—that is, the country’s future workforce, parents, and voters—are children of immigrants. More than half of recent marriages among immigrants were to a US-born partner.  And immigrants from around the world are serving in the US military, spurring technological innovation, and diversifying and enriching the country’s cuisine, music, business, art, and research.  

Yes, the well-being of the American people should be a very top priority for our nation’s leaders. The American people, no matter when our families arrived, widely cherish our history of immigration, which has shaped and continues to shape “us.” Our next president should value this immigration reality too.


Pushing to expand Social Security, Clinton makes history

August 4, 2016

Hillary Clinton made history last week in Philadelphia when she became the first woman ever nominated for the presidency by a major political party. But she also broke new ground by becoming the first presidential nominee in 68 years to use her acceptance speech to call for expanding Social Security.

Her comments signal a remarkable reversal in the Social Security policy debate, especially within the Democratic Party. After focusing for years on raising program revenues to preserve existing benefits, many party leaders, including Clinton, are now trying to boost benefits.

For a program that paid nearly $890 billion to 60 million beneficiaries last year, Social Security is barely discussed when presidential candidates accept their party’s nomination. More than half of the 42 acceptance speeches delivered since the Social Security Act was signed in 1935 didn’t reference Social Security at all, and most of those that mentioned the program did so just once, often only in passing.

The exception occurred in 2000. As George W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination that year, he mentioned Social Security five times—more than any other Republican—vowing to “strengthen” the program. Al Gore named Social Security a record 12 times when he became the Democratic nominee a few weeks later. He stressed the need to protect Social Security and shore up its financing but rejected Republican proposals to divert part of the program’s taxes to personal accounts. Neither candidate advocated raising benefits.

Clinton is only the second nominee of a major political party to call for expanding Social Security. The first was Harry Truman, who declared support for extending coverage and raising benefits in his 1948 nomination acceptance speech, when Social Security was much smaller than it is today.

If elected, how would Clinton expand Social Security? She didn’t give details at the Philadelphia convention, but the Democratic Party platform and her campaign website call for boosting survivor benefits and providing Social Security credits to people who interrupt their careers to care for family members and friends. They also advocate raising taxes on high-income workers to pay for these benefit sweeteners and close Social Security’s long-range financing gap.

Although relatively modest, these reforms could improve financial security for older women, especially widows who are now more than three times as likely to live in poverty as married older adults. But as our colleague Melissa Favreault has pointed out, improving survivor benefits won’t help the growing ranks of low-income older women who never marry or who divorce before qualifying for Social Security spouse and survivor benefits, and providing caregiver credits could raise benefits for many higher-income women who don’t need more support.

Clinton could choose to pursue Bernie Sanders’s much more ambitious goals for Social Security. He has proposed creating a minimum Social Security benefit equal to 125 percent of the federal poverty level for retirees with at least 30 years of covered employment, raising cost-of-living adjustments, and reworking the benefit formula to increase payouts to all retirees but disproportionately to beneficiaries with low lifetime earnings. To pay for this expansion and improve the program’s financing, Sanders would subject all earnings above $250,000 a year to the Social Security payroll tax, which now applies only to the first $118,500 earned each year. He would also impose an additional 6.2 percent tax on investment income for high-income people.

One of us (Smith) recently used DYNASIM, Urban’s dynamic microsimulation model, to evaluate Sanders’s proposal. Once fully phased in, these expansions would significantly raise after-tax incomes for lower and middle-income retirees. Very high income older adults would fare somewhat worse under the plan because the analysis assumes that employers would trim wages to offset the additional payroll taxes imposed by the plan.

Impact of Sanders's Social Security Expansions on Family Income

Sanders’s plan would also improve Social Security’s deteriorating financial situation. The program’s trustees now project that system costs will exceed total revenues beginning in 2019, and the deficit will grow until the trust fund is depleted in 2034. Thereafter, Social Security would be able to pay only about three-quarters of scheduled benefits. The additional tax revenue in the Sanders plan would extend solvency until 2073, nearly 40 years longer.

Although Clinton mentioned Social Security only once in her acceptance speech last week, her comments could mark a turning point in the Social Security reform debate. As stagnant wages, disappearing defined benefit pension plans, and rising out-of-pocket health care costs stoke concern about retirement security, the debate may be shifting from a focus on containing costs to expanding the system.

But Clinton’s shift in tone doesn’t end the debate. The Republican Party platform remains firmly opposed to any Social Security tax hikes. And devoting more money to Social Security leaves less for other policy goals, like trimming the national debt, helping low-income children, and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. At a minimum, perhaps the next president and Congress can begin serious discussions about how to fix Social Security’s long-term financing problems to safeguard this crucial program for future generations.