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No, Donald Trump, migrants aren’t ‘killing’ Social Security and Medicare

“Unlike the Democrats, who are KILLING SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE by allowing the INVASION OF THE MIGRANTS, I will NOT, under any circumstance, allow either of these two precious GEMS to be even touched under a Trump Administration. Biden is killing them both with the INVASION, while at the same time destroying our Country!”

— Donald Trump, in a social media post, March 21

The former president and presumptive GOP presidential nominee often says he will never touch two venerable old-age programs. He posted this statement after coming under fire for musing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” about ways to make the programs more efficient. “There is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting and in terms of also the theft and the bad management of entitlements,” he said.

The Biden campaign immediately attacked Trump for using the politically potent word “cutting.” But as regular readers know, Social Security and Medicare are under strain. Since 1995, the trustees of Social Security have warned, year after year, that a financing crunch would occur early in the 2030s, resulting in an immediate cut in benefits, unless Congress took action to address the problem. The same holds true for Medicare.

As president, Trump regularly proposed reductions in spending to providers in Medicare — which earned him attacks from Democrats. Most of these so-called cuts were not coming at the expense of seniors; they were intended to reduce out-of-pocket costs for seniors by making the program more efficient. Ironically, most of Trump’s proposals were borrowed from his predecessor, Barack Obama, who couldn’t get them through Congress because Republicans, in turn, attacked him for the proposals.

For the purposes of this fact check, we will examine Trump’s claim that Democrats are “killing” the programs because of the surge of migrants at the border. Nothing could be further from the truth. (A Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)

About 96 percent of workers must pay a certain amount of their paycheck, generally 6.2 percent, an amount that is matched by their employers, for a total tax of 12.4 percent. (Some state and local workers don’t participate in Social Security.) For Medicare, a total of 2.9 percent in tax, also split equally between employee and employer, is collected.

Workers stop paying into Social Security in a given year once their income reaches $168,600; no such limit exists for Medicare.

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, which means that payments collected today are immediately used to pay benefits. Because Social Security was not prefunded, it depends heavily on the contributions of current workers. The baby-boom generation (people born between 1946 and 1964) will have fully hit retirement age by 2031, reducing the number of workers per retiree. Meanwhile, before the coronavirus pandemic, people had been living longer and thus will collect benefits longer, while people are not having as many children, which limits the pool of new workers.

But if you are an undocumented worker — someone living in the United States on an expired visa (but still using a number received through a work permit) or someone using a fraudulent Social Security number — you are paying these taxes now without the guarantee of one day getting those benefits. Until the law was changed in 2008, the Social Security Administration would process claims for credit for those payments in benefit calculations if an immigrant who was formerly here illegally became a legal resident — and could prove he or she had made payments to the Social Security system.

In 2013, the chief actuary for Social Security estimated that about half of undocumented immigrants used a Social Security number. As a result, undocumented immigrants and their employers paid $13 billion in Social Security taxes in 2010, the actuary said.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration limits and a merit-based immigration system (and is often quoted with favor by Trump), said in a report last year that payments by undocumented immigrants “improves the finances of Social Security and Medicare.” (The calculus would change if Congress ever passed a law that gave legal status to undocumented immigrants and permitted collection of Social Security benefits that were owed — an unlikely prospect.)

The CIS report added that the percentage of the undocumented who use Social Security numbers has certainly increased since 2010 for two reasons. First, visa overstayers became a larger part of the undocumented population in the 2010s. Second, the Biden administration has used “parole” power to grant “temporary work permits to large numbers of migrants who will not be eligible for entitlement benefits when (and if) their parole expires,” the report said.

The actuary’s 2013 estimate has not been updated, but accounting for inflation and the trend lines in the 2013 report, we roughly calculate that the figure for Social Security payments made by undocumented immigrants is now about $27 billion.

We couldn’t find a similar calculation for Medicare, but it should be at least $6 billion, as the Medicare tax is about 23 percent of the Social Security tax.

In 2023, Social Security collected $1.2 trillion in payroll taxes and Medicare $358 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. So obviously the money contributed by undocumented workers is relatively small. But it’s not negative — or a killer.

It’s worth noting that because the United States essentially shut down immigration from 1924 to 1965, the vast majority of current retirees who receive Social Security are White. Using 2020 data, William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution estimated that 73.1 percent of Americans ages 65 to 74 are White and 77.1 percent of those 75 and older are White. Those older voters are the core of Trump’s base, but their continued retirement payments are courtesy of younger generations whose ranks were bolstered by the flow of immigration spurred by Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Trump thinks carefully before wording his social media posts. He wanted to defend his position on Social Security and at the same time knock President Biden for the migrant surge at the border. But 2 + 2 does not equal 5. Undocumented immigrants improve the health of Social Security and Medicare by paying payroll taxes without receiving benefits.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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