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Your Guide To Medicare And Social Security, Just In Time For Midterms

To clear up competing claims on the two largest U.S. benefit programs, we explore how they work and what makes them so contentious.
Posted at 5:15 PM, Oct 05, 2018

It's election time again, so get ready for conflicting claims about Social Security and Medicare — our two biggest social insurance plans.

"I'm going to protect your Social Security," President Donald Trump said last month at a rally in Montana

"Democrats want to destroy Medicare, ... and we will save it," the president also said last month during a meeting with the emir of Kuwait.

"Stop the lying and work with the American people who want to save Social Security," U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said in an online clip in reaction to Trump's claims. 

While Democrats typically suggest expanding both benefit programs, Republicans generally favor scaling them back in the name of fiscal conservatism.

But President Donald Trump has shaken up that ideological divide by backing big-government policies that are popular to his base. Still, experts say his claim that only he and Republicans can save Social Security and Medicare is dubious at best

Politics asides, Social Security and Medicare are confusing and contentious. If you're feeling intimidated by the topic, don't worry — we got you.

Social Security provides retirement and disability benefits to around 63 million people — that's one out of five Americans. As for Medicare, it covers the health insurance of almost 58 million Americans, most of whom are 65 or older.

To qualify for either plan, recipients must have worked and contributed by paying payroll taxes. More than 170 million workers currently pitch in to both programs with every paycheck. 

One of the reasons Social Security and Medicare are so controversial is their growing costs — together they accounted for 42 percent of all federal spending in 2017.

Over time, these two programs — especially Medicare — have been eating up bigger and bigger shares of government spending.

And more spending typically means more debt, unless lawmakers are willing to raise taxes or the economy grows faster than expected.

But even then, Social Security and Medicare are expected to run out of money in the next 10-15 years because of simple demographics. A declining birthrate means fewer workers are paying taxes and supporting retirees, who are living longer.

Recommended fixes generally involve raising taxes or reducing benefits, which, of course, are tough political sells.

And while the fiscal future of Social Security and Medicare is in jeopardy, more and more Americans want the government to protect their benefits. And that's not lost on President Trump.

This video includes reporting from Newsy affiliate CNN.