Americans want presidential candidates to focus on retirement policy — here's what 4 have said


Fully 8 out of 10 Americans feel that retirement policy should be a top priority for presidential candidates, according to a recent retirement study conducted by Wells Fargo of more than 2,700 working adults and about 1,000 retirees. And though workers increasingly view retirement as their own responsibility, 90% say that Congress needs to make it easier for them to have access to tax-friendly retirement plans.

Thus far in the presidential campaign, Democrats vying for the nomination have been largely focused on other issues, like the congressional impeachment probe into President Donald Trump, economic growth, access to health care, and trade. Social Security reform has come up, but it wasn't mentioned in the latest debate this week of 10 leading Democrats.

Their websites do, however, offer some insight into candidates' priorities and plans. (On his reelection website, Trump focuses on the promises he's kept from his 2016 campaign but does not yet detail future plans or mention issues related to retirement.)

Here's what the four Democrats currently leading in national polls have outlined about their plans related to retirement policy.

Joe Biden: An 'automatic 401(k)'

Former Vice President Joe Biden has an entire section on his website devoted to his far-reaching plan for older Americans. There, he outlines a five-item plan to assist this demographic, with ideas such as increasing Social Security benefits and providing help for older workers who want to continue working.

Here are two of his key proposals:

  • A more significant tax break for low- and middle-income workers to encourage them to save for retirement. "In the modern retirement landscape, a sound retirement begins with years of diligent saving," Biden writes. He argues that the current system, whereby savers set aside money for retirement in a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan before taxes, doesn't benefit workers at all income levels. He wants to "equalize benefits across the income scale, so that low- and middle-income workers will also get a tax break when they put money away for retirement."
  • A tax break for small businesses to start offering workplace retirement plans. Biden wants to see widespread adoption of retirement savings plans, like a 401(k), and offer tax credits to small businesses to offset related costs. He says that under his plan, "almost all workers without a pension or 401(k)-type plan will have access to an 'automatic 401(k),' which provides the opportunity to easily save for retirement at work – putting millions of middle-class families in the path to a secure retirement."

Pete Buttigieg: Portable benefits

In a July interview at the AARP Iowa Presidential Candidate Forum, Buttigieg, who is 37, said: "As the youngest candidate in the race, I'm actually excited to be the one talking a lot about retirement, so we'll be sharing more on that in the future."

Since then, however, he has not listed retirement among the dozens of major issues he addresses on his website. Buttigieg's site does have a searchable database of televised interviews, in which he has outlined a retirement-related idea to make benefits portable for workers who switch jobs.

"Our benefits system needs to be decoupled from this system we have now that still pretty much assumes that you're going to have the same career, or even the same employer, for your whole working life," Buttigieg said in an interview in July with CNN, adding that's not true for most people in his or younger generations.

"When we're talking about how you accrue retirement savings or unemployment insurance or various benefits from health to family leave, we are also going to have to be very creative economically in making sure that the way we support not just jobs, but workers, adds up in the 21st century," he said in that same interview.

Bernie Sanders: 'Reverse the cuts to retirement benefits'

As part of what he's called a 21st century economic bill of rights, Bernie Sanders asks on his website, "Are you truly free if you are 70 years old and forced to work because you lack a pension or enough money to retire?"

The senator from Vermont focuses on a wide-reaching plan for a secure retirement on his website. In addition to expanding Social Security benefits and funding the program with a plan to lift the payroll tax so wealthier Americans contribute more, Sanders' retirement-related ideas include:

  • Protect pension benefits. Sanders promises to "sign an executive order to impose a moratorium on future pension cuts and would reverse the cuts to retirement benefits that have already been made."
  • Expand shareholder democracy. Among his plans for corporate accountability and democracy, Sanders says he'll "guarantee the right of every saver to elect representatives who set voting policy in corporations, in multi-employer pensions, single-employer pensions, in 401(k) funds, and every other form."

Elizabeth Warren: Defend retirement savings

Among the nearly 60 plans detailed on her website, Elizabeth Warren lays out her vision for expanding Social Security, which entails giving current and future beneficiaries at least $200 more per month. Her website has a calculator where you can see how much your benefits might change under her proposals. This plan, which Warren says would be funded by asking the richest top 2% of families to contribute more, aims to address what she calls a "retirement crunch."

"It's too hard to save enough for a decent retirement — and it's only getting harder," the 70-year-old Massachusetts senator writes.

She also lays out plans for empowering American workers and raising wages. Those include defending worker pensions and other retirement savings.

Warren wants to create a loan program for the most financially distressed pension plans in the country. She also wants to restore a rule intended to protect retirement savers. The so-called fiduciary rule from the Labor Department hasn't been enforced since March 2018, per a court decision. Warren says she wants to restore this rule "so that brokers can't cheat workers out of their retirement savings."

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