The two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party and Donald Trump for the Republicans, disagree on everything except on Social Security, the US federal programme that guarantees basic pension benefits. Both have pledged not to cut benefits, a reversal of previous bipartisan attempts to reform the system.

Neither seem worried about the latest red flag raised by Social Security’s trustees. According to their estimates, its reserves will be depleted by 2034, when the programme will be able to pay only 79% of promised benefits.

Trump says he will solve the problem “by bringing jobs back, being smart, getting rid of waste, fraud and abuse”. That is a departure from Republican orthodoxy, represented by the House speaker Paul Ryan, whose programme has always included a partial privatisation of the system, encouraging workers to switch some of their Social Security taxes into private accounts. 

Trump does not seem interested in such a “revolution” – which was attempted by president George W. Bush – even though his party convention adopted a platform that says it believes in “the power of the markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system”. As fiscal conservatives define Social Security as an “entitlement”, Trump calls it an “earned benefit”.

Andrew Biggs, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, compares Trump’s recipe to a “magic wand”. Another expert disappointed by Trump is Steve Bell at the bipartisan Policy Center. “Trump’s comments are just another kick in the stomach of all of us who have worked for more than 30 years for the solvency of Social Security,” Bell told to the New York Times.

However, nobody can tell whether Trump really believes what he says or whether he is avoiding the ‘third rail’, ready to change position if he conquers the White House.

Clinton, on the other hand, goes further. Pressed by the left wing of her party, she has abandoned the consensus that benefit cuts were needed, and has adopted the “expansion” theme of her former primary opponent Bernie Sanders. Clinton wants to defend Social Security benefits, and expand them for widows and those who have taken time out of the paid workforce to care for a child or a sick family member. Most of those caregivers are women, who represent an important share of her constituency. Because women often take an extended career break, they have fewer credits to their Social Security account and receive lower benefits.

The Democrats’ new policy has been welcomed by Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston college: “I’ve always been against cutbacks, so now I’m in the centre of the debate.”

The Policy Center also agrees with increasing minimum benefits for low-income seniors and enhancing benefits for the bereaved. The latter receive their own benefit or 100% of a deceased spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher. The Policy Center proposes to give survivors their own benefit plus 75% of their deceased spouse’s benefit.

To pay for expansion, Clinton admits she has to raise taxes. She will tax Americans beyond the Social Security tax cap – currently $118,500 (€106,040) – and is considering making investment earnings subject to Social Security taxes. According to the Policy Center, it would be necessary to gradually adopt other measures, such as raising by 1% the payroll tax, currently 12.4% over 10 years. Other options include raising retirement age and adopting a less generous annual cost-of-living adjustment.

Further ideas include investing 40% of the Social Securities reserves in assets with returns higher than the special-issue Treasury bonds – currently the only permitted investment.

Any change will depend on the Congress, now controlled by the Republicans. In the meantime, in a presidential campaign dominated by populist themes, it is unlikely any details will emerge.