Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) shared a moving personal story about his firsthand appreciation of Social Security during the Republican debate on Thursday. Then he explained how it inspired him to want to cut the program.
“When I was 21, my mom died. When I was 22, my dad died,” Graham recalled. “We owned a liquor store, restaurant, bar, and we lived in the back. Every penny we needed from -- every penny we got from Social Security, because my sister was a minor, we needed.” Graham later said that prior to Social Security, nearly half of elderly Americans were living in poverty.
Graham pointed to his experience as a reason why he wants to cut benefits in order to shore up the program’s finances. He appeared to propose means-testing Social Security benefits.
“Today, I'm 60, I'm not married, I don't have any kids,” Graham said. “I would give up some Social Security to save a system that Americans are going to depend on now and in the future.”
Graham invoked Ronald Reagan as a model for bipartisan reform of Social Security and Medicare. Reagan brokered a deal in 1983 with then-Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill that combined tax increases and spending cuts to extend Social Security’s solvency for several decades.
At the time though, Social Security faced an immediate funding crisis, heightening the incentives for compromise. Now, Social Security is projected to have enough money to pay all promised benefits through 2033, and 79 percent of promised benefits indefinitely after that.
Graham has recalled the importance of Social Security benefits for his younger sister several times in the past. Social Security provides cash survivors benefits to children under 18 if one or both of their parents dies.
Graham has also laid out his plans to cut Social Security in the past. He introduced a Social Security reform bill in 2011 that would have increased the normal retirement age to 70 and reduced benefits substantially for middle- and upper-income earners. Unlike Reagan’s 1983 reforms, Graham’s plan would not raise taxes.
Graham may be unique among Republican candidates in his personal experience with Social Security, but his preference for cutting the program as a means of closing the funding gap is not. Among the 17 GOP hopefuls, only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has come out explicitly against cutting Social Security.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has opposed efforts to privatize Social Security and said she would “not mess with it.” Clinton has stopped short of endorsing a benefit increase, which has been embraced by her Democratic rivals, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
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