Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin blasted President Bush's proposed restructuring of Social Security before a largely receptive audience at the Elkridge Senior Center this week. The town hall meeting was one of four such stops Cardin made on Monday and Tuesday as part of a well-coordinated effort among Democrats -- including Maryland's six Democratic House members -- to combat the president's agenda.
"Social Security is the best-funded program that we have in Washington today," Cardin told the more than 30 people in attendance. "It's not in a crisis. It's not going bankrupt."
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In early March, Bush began a 60-day, 29-state, grass-roots campaign to build public support for his plan to remake the 70-year-old national insurance program, through the creation of personal retirement accounts.
His proposal would enable workers under 55 to gradually divert nearly one-third of their Social Security taxes into private investments, arguing that such accounts will offset any future benefit reductions. The president touts this plan as a remedy to Social Security under-funding as the ratio of workers to retirees dwindles.
But according to the most conservative fiscal projections, said Cardin, Social Security has enough money to pay full benefits for 37 years, until 2042.
And if funds should run out earlier?
"The increase in defense spending just in this four-year period is more money than we would have needed for Social Security," he said. "I'm not saying we shouldn't spend that money on defense; I'm saying we found that money when we needed to."
Although the Baltimore Democrat does not condone complete dependence on Social Security, and urged young people to save for their own retirement, he described the system as a vital safety net for American workers.
"As recently as the 1950s, one out of every three seniors in America lived in poverty. Today, that number is under 10 percent. The primary reason is Social Security," said Cardin, noting that Social Security constitutes nearly the income of one-third of retirees.
Cardin added that the federal program provides "security for a population that otherwise would not have been able to maintain a decent standard of living."
Earl Hudson offered himself as an example. Employed since the age of 12 and retired by 62, the legally blind Elkridge resident incurred medical and litigation expenses that exhausted his private savings. The 75-year-old now depends primarily on his monthly Social Security check of $971.
With Social Security, "you've got to build a fence around it and don't touch it," Hudson said. "You never know what's gonna hit you."
Charley Ward, an Elkridge resident in his seventies, worked a series of cash jobs throughout his life and did not pay much in Social Security taxes.
He admonished younger workers to "steer clear of jobs where you don't take taxes out, because then you've got nothing." Because of his insufficient Social Security funds, Ward now collects a veterans pension instead.
Though he staunchly opposes Bush's proposed overhaul of Social Security, Cardin says he thinks the system does need a tuneup.
For starters, Social Security money should be designated solely for its intended purpose, he said. "These are trust monies. These are not monies to be spent on Iraq. These are not monies to be spent on our schools. This is money to be spent on Social Security -- that's why we imposed the payroll tax."
In addition to encouraging workers to build private retirement investment accounts to supplement Social Security, he said: "I'd like to see all employees have a good employer pension plan -- not what happened to Federal Steel or United Airlines where they backed off on their pension commitment. I think you've got to protect private pension plans."
But later, when an audience member raised concerns about severed employer pensions, such as with Bethlehem Steel, and asked what the government would do about it, Cardin backpedaled.
"There's a limit to what we should do in the government -- you can't expect us to guarantee everything. We can't do that," he said. "That's why we have certain guaranteed protections. We have Social Security; we have Medicare -- we have safety nets."