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Social Security

The Social Security Dialogue

By David S. Broder
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page C09

opinion
The latest entry in the category of "better late than never" is President Clinton's proposal in the State of the Union address to launch a national dialogue on how to save Social Security for the boomers and their children.

Cynics will say – in fact, have said – that whenever Clinton doesn't know what to do about a problem, he suggests a dialogue. In 1997 he created a commission and urged it to conduct "a national conversation" on race. The commission has several months to go, but so far it seems to have generated a lot of controversy about its own operations and much less in the way of public response than Clinton hoped.

Understandably, people ask: Why not skip the outreach rigamarole and get to the answer of what to do when the demographic wave of baby-boomer retirees overwhelms the Social Security trust fund, which the experts say is likely to happen about 30 years from now?

The answer is that Clinton probably has the timing right – spend a year walking people through the problem and the alternative solutions and then put on a full-court press for legislative action in 1999.

My own reporting confirms what Gene Sperling, the head of the White House's National Economic Council, says: Across the political spectrum, most people agree that it would be a mistake for Clinton – or any other prominent elected official – to offer a favored "solution" before the country has a better fix on what needs to be done. Any plan rolled out today would likely die in a partisan cross-fire.

The kind of conversation we need already has begun in a number of congressional districts where the incumbents have been months or even years ahead of Clinton in focusing on this issue. Republican representatives such as Jim Kolbe of Arizona, John Edward Porter of Illinois, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Nick Smith of Michigan, and Democrats such as Marty Meehan of Massachusetts and Charles Stenholm of Texas will testify that their constituents are more than ready to confront this problem. Senators of both parties, such as Democrat Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, say the same thing.

Clinton aides have been smart in asking two private groups, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the Concord Coalition, to take responsibility for organizing the four regional forums that will precede a White House conference on Social Security the president plans to hold next December. The hope is that enough agreement will have emerged by then to make it possible to pass a long-term fix in the 1999 session of Congress. The AARP, the largest organization of seniors, and the Concord Coalition, the most influential lobby for fiscal discipline, can conduct the honest debate that is needed.

The task is tough. The history of major programs, including Social Security and Medicare, is that big changes can be made only under the spur of imminent crisis. The Social Security problems of 2030 seem remote. While Clinton asked Congress not to squander a dime of the expected budget surpluses until Social Security's future has been ensured, he does not, according to Sperling, delude himself that every available dollar will eventually go to Social Security. He simply hopes to persuade those who want tax cuts and those who want new domestic spending to support a two-year moratorium until Social Security is fixed.

But it will not be easy to get agreement on the fix. Think tanks and advocacy groups backed by Wall Street and other business interests want to convert Social Security into individual savings accounts that would (they claim) allow every wage earner to enjoy the glorious returns the stock market has been providing wealthy investors. The AFL-CIO looks askance at such a scheme and would prefer to see more taxes pumped into Social Security, one way or another.

Those who have probed public attitudes find deep divisions on both generational and economic/educational lines. Bob Hannan, who ran a recent Concord Coalition exercise in Social Security options for more than 100 people in Meehan's Massachusetts district, told me, "Older people trust government more than the market to provide retirement security; with younger people, it is the reverse."

Robert J. Berrier, a Pennsylvania researcher who has conducted dozens of focus groups for AARP, found even further distinctions among the boomers. "Self-employed and successful people are the most willing to provide for themselves," he told me, "but a lot of working-class people recognize their lack of financial skills and don't feel comfortable with the idea of providing for their own retirements."

With all the explaining and discussing that lie ahead, Clinton's signal to begin the dialogue comes none too soon. It is truly "better late than never."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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