By Amy Goldstein
Jim Polito believes that, for his parents and grandparents, the federal government should keep its promise to provide them a guaranteed monthly income, through Social Security, that they came to expect during their working lives. But Polito doesn't believe in it for himself.
"I believe in personal savings," the 34-year-old Rhode Island resident told Vice President Gore, four members of Congress and a panel of economic experts today at a forum to discuss the cloudy future of the nation's retirement program. "I want to grow a little victory garden on my own."
Polito's sentiment, in favor of trading in all or part of the government-run Social Security system for personal savings accounts, is gaining adherents around the country. It has been bolstered by several prominent conservative think tanks and is gaining the support of Republicans and a few Democrats. Though the degree varies, the underlying theme of privatization is to give individuals a say in how their Social Security taxes are invested, by reducing government benefits while allowing people to put some portion of the money into higher-earning stocks.
And while the White House is sponsoring a year-long public dialogue on Social Security through sessions such as today's as a prelude to a full-scale political debate next year, many other Democrats are beginning to worry they already have lost ground in molding public opinion. As a result, they are beginning a counteroffensive, stepping up efforts to advance their own ideas for revamping the program, and becoming more vocal in warning of the potential risks of entrusting too much retirement income to the unpredictable stock market.
Their efforts were on display here today, even as Gore sought to maintain the official neutrality that is the White House's strategy on Social Security for now.
"If you want to shoot craps, understand you could win or you could lose," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), one of the members of Congress who accompanied the vice president here. "This system is broken and has to be fixed, but it shouldn't be done in," Rangel said to the gathered crowd of southern New Englanders.
For Gore, today's forum, the second of four being held around the country this year, was an opportunity to step out front on one of the dominant -- and one of the trickiest -- social policy questions that will be in play as he approaches the 2000 presidential election.
With President Clinton away in China, it was Gore's turn to show his sensitivity to the issue's nuances and to play the role of teacher.
Using colored charts as his props, Gore gave a primer on the conditions that are putting increasing pressures on the Depression-era program that is the main source of retirement income for two-thirds of Americans. He talked of the nation's dwindling ratio of workers to retirees, the tendency of Americans to live longer and the trend in which growing numbers of workers retire early. By 2032, the most recent forecasts predict, the program's trust fund will begin to run out of money.
He suggested that some ideas for shoring up Social Security, such as raising the age at which people become eligible for benefits, might have an especially harsh effect on certain parts of the population, such as people who "work in hard, physical jobs" that can be difficult to continue in as they age.
Gore veered momentarily from the White House's usually steadfast neutrality on how the looming problem should be addressed to question the soundness of privatization. "Some of the more radical schemes, the extensive privatization proposals, would carry some higher risk, to say the least," he said. And he noted that the head of Chile's retirement system, which relies entirely on investments in the private market, recently urged Chileans approaching retirement to keep working a little longer because of downturns in that country's stock market.
But for the most part, Gore left the overt efforts to redefine the debate to some of those who shared the podium at a conference center here. He reiterated Clinton's intention to convene a White House summit on Social Security in December and to try to make the issue a central part of the political agenda shortly after the next Congress begins in January.
Other Democrats are reluctant to wait that long to make their preferences known. At the request of the House Democratic leadership, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) is preparing legislation that he hopes will be ready in about a month. His bill will rely on the stock market to some degree, but in a way that is fundamentally different from the calls for personal investment accounts.
Pomeroy said this week that his bill will call for the government itself to invest about half of the Social Security trust fund in stocks, in a strategy that he says would take advantage of the potential for higher returns on Wall Street without putting individuals at risk.
"Who's better able to withstand the fluctuation of the stock market -- the United States of America or an individual about to hit 65 and retire?" he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is considering introducing legislation for what would be portrayed as a mainstream Democratic approach in the Senate.
The legislative activity is occurring as interest groups opposed to making Social Security private are intensifying their own efforts. The Institute for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group on economic issues, is beginning to forge a coalition with organizations representing women, minorities and people with disabilities.
One participant in that fledgling alliance, the AFL-CIO, has been meeting with congressional Democrats and is preparing for a massive education campaign on Social Security among its members.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Washington contributed to this report.
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