Securing Social Security

Flux: As the program celebrates its 70th anniversary, questions linger about its future.

August 14, 2005|By William Neikirk | William Neikirk,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- On a brutally hot day at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, 97-year-old Winnie Pineo of Vermont came to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Social Security and speak out against President Bush's plan for partial privatization.

A retired union organizer and political activist, she called Social Security "a moral commitment" to the elderly.

If people are allowed to put some of their payroll taxes in a sometimes-volatile stock market, their savings could be "blown away like fall leaves in the Green Mountains of Vermont," she said.

Such sentiments illustrate how deeply embedded Social Security and its benefits have become in American society since Roosevelt signed the program into law on Aug. 14, 1935.

They also show how hard it is to make changes in a program that has long been known as "the third rail of American politics" and which has helped millions of elderly Americans.

Now, more than 48 million Americans receive Social Security benefits. Social Security is the sole source of income for 22 percent of recipients, and it represents 39 percent of income for elderly people. The first monthly benefit -- $22.54 -- was issued to Ida May Fuller, a legal secretary from Ludlow, Vt., in 1940. She received more than $22,000 in benefits before dying at age 100 in 1975.

Bush's efforts to tackle the system's long-range funding problems and introduce private accounts for workers have run into powerful resistance among the public and in Congress. Polls show that the more he has pushed his proposal, the less support he has received.

With no immediate financing crisis at hand and lacking a congressional majority large enough to get his way, the president is discovering how hard it is to alter the status quo for a program to which Americans have a deep emotional attachment.

A major battle between Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives has erupted over overhauling the system, all but guaranteeing that it will be a hot-button issue in next year's midterm elections and in the 2008 presidential election. The GOP accuses Democrats of obstructionist tactics and not having a plan of their own to deal with Social Security's long-range funding shortage.

One advocacy group, Americans United to Protect Social Security, used the 70th anniversary to stage a rally Friday at the FDR Memorial opposing the Bush plan, with FDR's grandson, James Roosevelt Jr., as a speaker. Roosevelt said that if his grandfather were alive today, "he would take privatization off the table and talk about small changes" needed to save the system from insolvency.

He also said he is concerned about one thing: "When President Bush gets a bad idea, he seems to stand behind it." At his ranch in Texas last week, Bush continued to speak out for private accounts as well as for making the system solvent by cutting future benefits for the middle class and the wealthy.

Republicans plan to make another push for Social Security private accounts when Congress returns for its fall session, with Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, leading the charge. His spokeswoman says the chairman is optimistic, even though many Republicans doubt that Thomas will be successful.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a strong conservative advocate of private accounts, said he did not believe that Congress would pass a measure authorizing these accounts "until you have 60 Republican senators," or a veto-proof majority. There are now 55 GOP senators. It will be 2006 or 2008 before the GOP could possibly win enough Senate seats to change the status quo, he said.

Norquist also said Bush at this time should not push for making the system solvent, but rather for a congressional proposal to use a current Social Security surplus to help finance private accounts for Americans.

Support for private accounts plunged, Norquist said, after Bush said he also favored curtailing the growth in future benefits to close a funding gap that is projected to start in 2018.

Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, vice chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said there is still a chance the House could pass Social Security legislation this fall, but added that if it does not, "the next election could be a referendum on Social Security."

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said, "Privatizing Social Security would cut guaranteed benefits by more than 40 percent for middle-class Americans and would also increase the debt by $5 trillion over 20 years."

At the FDR Memorial, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting representative in Congress, said Bush's campaign had strengthened resolve to keep the program intact. "If I were laying odds, I would not lay odds on privatizing Social Security," she said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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