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Social Security

Weekend Wonks

By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 14 1998; Page C07

When the words flashed on the giant screen, a cheer went up in the hotel ballroom: "People Talk – Will Washington Listen?"

As the final exercise in a 4 1/2-hour session of intense discussion and group decision-making, moderator Carolyn Lukensmeyer asked the 400-plus participants to write the headline they would put on the event. Dozens of suggestions flashed from the computers on their tables to the screen, but it was clear from the applause which had won.

That was the end of the first phase of a useful but imperfect effort at serious grass-roots democracy devised by a group called Americans Discuss Social Security, an attempt funded by a $12.5 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Before coming to Mesa on the final weekend of May, the group had held similar events in Austin, Buffalo, Seattle and Des Moines, plus a 10-city teleconference with other sites.

Several organizations have responded to President Clinton's plea that 1998 be a year of national dialogue on the future of Social Security. The hope is that enough agreement emerges to encourage politicians of both parties in 1999 to make the changes needed to preserve that landmark system for the millions of baby boomers moving into retirement age and for their heirs.

Thanks to the Pew money, Lukensmeyer's group can afford a serious outreach program into each of the targeted communities, a professional packet of background readings for each of the participants and state-of-the-art computers allowing the responses of all the citizens to be melded and reported back to them in an instant.

As she has begun walking the results of these forums around Capitol Hill, Lukensmeyer has been careful to caution that the process is more important than the specific policy recommendations. "The thing that is most significant is the overwhelming percentage – 88 or 90 percent in each city – who say now is the time for basic reforms. And their willingness to engage seriously in considering what those reforms should be is impressive. Giving up most of a weekend day for this is really something."

It was indeed striking to see how many people came to the conference center in this Phoenix suburb and stayed with their groups of 10 at round tables from early morning until well into the afternoon, sustained only by coffee, soft drinks and a box lunch. At the table where I sat, observing but not participating, everyone joined in and interest never flagged.

Recruited through a network of sponsoring organizations ranging from the AFL-CIO to the Goldwater Institute, the attendees were a fair reflection of the age and gender mix of the area, with some ethnic and racial diversity but a notable skew toward higher-income people – a common pattern, Lukensmeyer told participants, urging them to be mindful in their discussion of the needs of the underrepresented poor.

As it turned out, the caution was unnecessary. When participants were asked to discuss the values most important to preserve in Social Security, the safety net was at the top of the list – here and elsewhere. Significantly, young people said they felt as strongly about that as their elders.

Other important values were equity among the generations and the integrity of the system – ensuring that Social Security taxes are used for its benefits and for nothing else.

Identifying the values is important, because there is far less agreement on solutions. At my table, and generally here and elsewhere, the participants were more inclined to increase the earnings base for Social Security taxes than to raise the retirement age and were divided sharply on the wisdom of converting Social Security into individual savings accounts.

One problem in the forum – at least for my table-mates – was a lack of time and solid financial information with which to analyze the nine alternative fixes offered on the menu. And that illustrates the limitations of even the most serious effort to create the kind of "electronic town meeting" Ross Perot talked about so much in his first presidential campaign. Trade-offs and negotiations take lots of time.

David O. (I agreed not to use last names, to avoid inhibiting the discussion) volunteered to handle the computer used to send in "consensus" statements from our table. He is a financial planner, and it quickly became clear that his agenda was to enlist support for "privatization" options. When he ran into real resistance on that front, he lost interest in his job – and no other consensus positions emerged.

But the people at my table, who had been pretty skeptical about the value of this exercise at the outset, left feeling good about their discussion. They still wondered, however, "Will Washington listen?"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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