Social Security for all but the rich?

The GOP debate in three minutes
The GOP debate in three minutes

It certainly sounds like the perfect populist pitch for a presidential candidate: Let the rich pay into Social Security but don't let them draw benefits from it.

After all, the thinking goes, the program is facing long-term funding shortfalls, and the rich don't really "need" Social Security checks to live on during their later years.

"We need to save this program for the good people out there who have paid into the system and need it. And if that means making sure that folks like Donald [Trump] and many of us on the stage don't get it, that's the right thing to do," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said at CNN's Republican debate on Wednesday night.

The idea is just one of many measures Christie includes in his plan to make Social Security solvent long term. Under his proposal, a future retiree whose retirement income outside of Social Security is $200,000 or more would not get benefits at all.

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So if you care about Social Security and are in the camp that believes the rich can afford to contribute more for the greater good, what's not to like?

A lot, according to some advocates for the program. The idea -- while well intentioned -- might actually undercut the program for those who need it most, they say.

"You're changing the nature of the program. If people are paying in and not getting a benefit out, it's no longer an insurance program," said Benjamin Veghte, vice president for policy at the National Academy of Social Insurance.

That, in turn, could undermine political support for Social Security over time because it would start to be perceived as welfare, Veghte said.

Similarly, certified financial planner Doug Flynn contends that the idea could undermine support for the program because it essentially changes what is perceived to be an annuity for everyone into a pure tax for high-income households.

Marc Goldwein, senior policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said Christie's idea would certainly change the structure of the program.

And, Goldwein noted, those making between $80,000 and $200,000 in retirement probably won't like it because under Christie's plan, their benefits would be reduced on a sliding scale.

He doesn't think, however, that the change would undercut the notion of Social Security as insurance or its popularity since everyone would know benefits are available to them whenever their income falls below a certain level.

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There is a question, though, whether current-year income in retirement is really the best measure of a senior's well-being. There are ways in which it may understate or overstate it.

For instance, much of seniors' income will come from savings and investments and may not be taxable, Goldwein noted. If a senior sells $100,000 in stock and books a $50,000 gain, only $50,000 would be counted as income.

On the flip side, Flynn noted that someone whose income exceeds Christie's threshold in a given year might still need Social Security as a support because much of his high income could be eaten up by his medical expenses in high-cost areas.

The GOP debate in three minutes
The GOP debate in three minutes