Fixing Social Security no longer the third rail of U.S. politics Powerful voting bloc of seniors ready for reform, though wary

March 01, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHOENIX -- In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Noel Willis' parents learned a harsh lesson that they would impress on their son until it stuck.

"Tomorrow is not like today," the 72-year-old retiree dutifully repeated, decades after his parents' deaths. "It's worse."

It is a peculiar form of pessimism that informs Willis' view of life, one that holds both promise and peril for Washington's nascent debate over Social Security. It has helped Willis and his fellow seniors at Sun City West accept dire warnings about the system's impending collapse.

But it has also made them acutely suspicious of the multitude of proposals to rescue Social Security. And in the end, the feelings of the elderly will be perhaps the most telling barometer of whether Congress can summon the courage to effect meaningful reform.

From all appearances, the 30,000 residents of the sprawling retirement community of Sun City West seem to be a contented lot. They are fiercely proud of the compound they helped build in the desert.

Between Sun City West and its even larger neighbor, Sun City, an unbroken expanse of strip malls buffers miles of tidy residences, their gravel yards landscaped with cactus, sage, yucca and palms. Freshly paved residential streets lie mostly empty, save for a few golf carts gamely tooling toward town, their drivers bundled against an unseasonably cool 60 degrees.

For all their apparent serenity, Willis, the president of Sun City West's civic association, said many residents worry that Congress will never fix Social Security. At Willis' behest, a dozen of them have gathered to discuss the federal program that has become a lifeline to so many senior citizens. They recall Willis' adage and forcefully express their distrust of the government's intentions.

The elderly willing to talk

They are well-informed about the program's long-term problems, and though unconvinced of any solution, they seem grudgingly willing to examine the options. In the debate over Social Security's future, that is progress.

"People are ready for change -- they are," said John Coon, a spry 72-year-old who fled the Chicago suburbs 11 years ago for the warmth of the desert. "But it has to be well-explained."

Saving Social Security may be the most formidable challenge Washington faces in the next decade.

Quietly, change is transforming the issue. Where the federal pension and disability program was once the untouchable third rail of politics, it is now the subject of honest debate among senior citizens and policy-makers alike.

As Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, recently observed, Social Security has gone from being unmentionable to merely controversial.

"This could be a breakthrough," said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

Bewildering battle ahead

The coming battle over Social Security will be bewildering, with the antagonists fighting over not only potential remedies for the nation's old-age pension system, but also whether the system even has a problem to mend.

But it is coming.

The Concord Coalition, an organization devoted to sound budget policy, has launched a barnstorming campaign to bring the debate to communities across the country.

The group has brought together widely divergent views from business groups, organized labor and senior citizens associations. The coalition are more interested in laying the groundwork for a civil debate than in hammering out a solution to Social Security's troubles.

Participants stopped in Phoenix on Thursday. President Clinton will attend its April 7 forum in Kansas City, then tag along for three other events this year.

Clinton has studiously avoided introducing real policy proposals of his own, and Gene Sperling, director of the president's National Economic Council, said he expects no policy prescriptions to emerge until at least 1999, and certainly not during the 1998 election year.

"We're telling people: 'Hold your fire. Try to work together. Let's not blow it by turning [Social Security] into a political battlefield in '98,' " Sperling said

Early entrants

Two broad camps have pitched their tents warily on the edge of the issue.

One contends that Social Security is facing a crisis and will go bankrupt within three decades unless the nation embarks on a radical restructuring of the system.

The other side believes that Social Security's problems are grossly overstated and that a few minor adjustments would allow baby boomers to retire with benefit checks intact.

Within those camps are a myriad suggestions to change the system, from converting all of Social Security into mandatory 401 (k)-like plans that invest in the stock market to raising the retirement age to 70, to trimming benefits for wealthy recipients to simply increasing government investment in education and infrastructure in order to boost productivity and Social Security tax revenue.

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