Next generation of taxpayers, leaders to attend D.C. forum on Social Security Young interns to hear about burden of solvency

July 29, 1998|By Geoffrey C. Upton | Geoffrey C. Upton,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For one day at least, someone else will have to answer the phones.

This morning, hundreds of college-age interns in the nation's capital will leave their desks at federal agencies and nonprofits, museums and magazines. They will gather en masse to discuss an issue not of urgency to your average 20-year-old: the solvency of the Social Security system.

The "intern summit" is the latest effort by Americans Discuss Social Security, a nonpartisan group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, to spur a national dialogue on a potential crisis. The group has sponsored a 10-city teleconference and forums in five other cities.

But unlike the previous forums, today's summit will zero in on people who tend to associate Social Security with their grandparents. The group's executive director, Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, calls it crucial to engage young adults, who may have to shoulder an extraordinary tax burden to finance the retirements of the huge generation of baby boomers.

"One of the most important generations to be reached is people under 35," Lukensmeyer said. "They'll be living with the ramifications of the reform more than anybody else."

Unless Congress raises the retirement age, creates private retirement accounts or establishes some other reforms, analysts say, Social Security will go into debt around 2032.

Summit organizers faxed fliers to scores of offices around the city and took out ads in CityPaper, Washington's free weekly.

Lukensmeyer said she had hoped 500 interns would attend; nearly 700 have said they will.

The centerpiece will be discussions of the ideals of the Social Security system and the remedies that have been proposed. Also on the agenda: a quiz about Social Security; briefings on how the system works and on how reform ideas become reform legislation, and speeches by Kenneth S. Apfel, commissioner of the Baltimore-based Social Security Administration; Gene Sperling of the National Economic Council; Rep. Mark Sanford Jr., a South Carolina Republican; and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat.

Some of the delegates will meet at the Capitol tomorrow to present a summary report to members of Congress.

In trying to generate buzz about the summit, the organizers had one built-in advantage: A sizable portion of the capital's summer interns are aspiring policy makers or politicians.

Bryon Allen, 21, a political science major at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, said, for example, that he thinks about Social Security -- and the need to generate higher returns through private investment accounts -- each time he gets a paycheck.

Allen, an intern at the nonprofit National Center for Policy Analysis, said he's attended other forums where senior citizens stoutly defend the current Social Security system. "It'll be interesting to see if there are people my age who are really interested in defending the status quo," he said.

Perhaps he'll get to meet Steve Smith, a political science major at Penn State who favors some variation of the present structure.

"Social Security is one of the defining issues our party has stood for, and one of the best programs to come out of the 20th century," said Smith, an intern for the Democratic Governors' Association.

Smith called privatization "insane" and said he favors a two-tiered system, similar to that proposed by Nebraska Democrat Sen. Bob Kerrey. Smith's plan would preserve the taxpayer-supported trust fund while investing some portion of nTC money into private retirement accounts linked to the stock market.

Other interns, who say they lack fully formed opinions, hope to learn more.

"I'm not the most informed on Social Security, but that's all the more reason to go," said Karen Sager, a 20-year-old journalism major who will be a senior at Ohio University.

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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