If Hillary Clinton is taking Social Security now, she's making a big mistake

Hillary Clinton should set an example by deferring her Social Security retirement as long as possible

A new conservative line of attack against Hillary Clinton appears to be whether, at age 67, she's receiving Social Security checks.

The issue came up during the newly announced presidential candidate's appearance at a roundtable discussion with furniture factory employees in New Hampshire. One worker explained that she had retired from the factory, but later returned to the factory floor because she couldn't make ends meet on the $1,400 a month she received from Social Security and her savings. 

The right-wing Washington Times wrote in its story on the encounter that Clinton's "campaign repeatedly refused to say whether the 67-year-old candidate collects benefits herself or how much she pockets."

Its headline was: "Hillary Clinton ignores Social Security expansion calls, mum on own benefits."

A few things about this. 

First, the Washington Times seems to be suggesting that Clinton's own benefit status is relevant to her position on Social Security. That's beyond foolish, since Social Security is relevant to almost all Americans, either as contributors or beneficiaries, and an important topic for any presidential candidate, whether 37 or 67. (More on her position in a moment.) 

Second: Notice the term "pockets," which usually implies that someone is receiving excessive, undeserved payments. This is how you can see conservatives' disdain for Social Security, the single most important anti-poverty program in American history, creeping into what was masquerading as a straight news story.

No one "pockets" benefits from Social Security. The average benefit check is $1,217.54 a month, or $14,610 a year. The maximum retirement benefit for a worker retiring at full retirement age (for Clinton, that's 66) is $2,663 a month, or $31,956 a year. These benefits are based on the career-long covered earnings of the worker or his or her spouse. They're earned from a lifetime of work. Whatever Clinton collects, when she does collect, she will have earned. Not "pocketed." The suggestion that her benefit is used as a "gotcha" in a news story is pathetic.

Another point: If Clinton is collecting benefits now, she's making a huge mistake. Retirees are well-counseled to put off collecting retirement checks as long as possible. That's because the monthly check increases for every month one delays collecting after normal retirement age, up to age 70, and diminishes for every month prior to the normal retirement age, down to the minimum of 62. These adjustments are actuarial -- they're designed to provide early retirees with the same lifetime retirement benefits as late retirees by adjusting the monthly check to reflect the longer or shorter time frames they're collected, on average.

Let's use Clinton as an example. We'll assume she's eligible for the maximum benefit -- a reasonable guess, since she's been a high-paid lawyer and government official for much of her adult life. If she started taking benefits in 2013 at her normal retirement age, she would have been eligible then for a maximum monthly check of $2,533, or $30,396 a year. If she started at the minimum age of 62, she'd receive only 75.42% of her retirement benefit, for life. That's about $1,910 a month, or $22,925 a year. If she waits until 70, she'll get 132% of her normal benefit, or $3,343 a month, or $40,122 annually.

So the difference in annual benefits between early and late retirement is huge. If Clinton, a millionaire, actually has chosen to accept retirement benefits now, it would be proper to question her financial judgment.

What about her position on Social Security? At the roundtable she seemed to take a firm stand against the idea of cutting benefits, though she did leave a large margin of wiggle room: 

"My only question to everybody who thinks we can privatize Social Security or undermine it in some way," she said, "is, so then what's going to happen to all these people like you who worked 27 years at this other company? What's going to happen? It's just wrong."

On the surface, this looks like an attempt to draw a line between her approach and that of Republican candidates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. His proposal to raise the retirement age and "means test" benefits amounts to benefit cuts. (We analyzed Christie's proposals here.) Many of the other GOP aspirants to the White House similarly seem to prefer benefit cuts over raising the payroll tax, the most sensible way of strengthening Social Security's fiscal position. 

But Clinton so far hasn't taken a position on the emerging Democratic consensus in Congress for expanding Social Security, backed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), among others. Clinton should embrace the idea. We've argued for this approach, including here and here.

It's detested by conservatives, such as rightist pundit Megan McArdle, because it restores at least a measure of fairness to America's pattern of income distribution -- and that means requiring the wealthy to pay more of their fair share. 

If Clinton is serious about standing up for America's middle class, this is the right policy. It doesn't have anything whatsoever to do with whether she's collecting a monthly check or not. It only has to do with what's best for America's working- and middle-class. 

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page or email mhiltzik@latimes.com.

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