November 1, 2003


We need Pepper's courage now

Robert Weiner
Robert Weiner

One of the major issues in the current presidential campaign -- raised by both parties and newspapers nationwide -- is the need to "save" Social Security. Everyone is talking about the impact of the coming wave of baby-boomer retirements.

Economic columnists such as Robert Samuelson make the case that the baby boomers "are in a conspiracy against our children." Recently U.S. Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., typified congressional flamethrowers when he held a "special order" on the House floor to blast: ``Insolvency is certain. Social Security is the largest federal expenditure."

I served as staff director of the House Aging Committee under the great Claude Pepper, D-Miami, for five years and helped him as a friend and consultant until he died in 1989. He would roll over in his grave from what the Republicans and even naysayers in his own cherished Democratic Party are promulgating about Social Security.

I remember Pepper's outrage in 1978 at Carter Commerce Secretary Juanita Krepsí statement reported in the press about increasing the retirement age to 68 for full Social Security retirement benefits. Pepper demanded and got a meeting of Kreps with himself and House Social Security Chairman James Burke, D-Mass. Pepper kept saying that he and Burke would "fight it to our death." Kreps asked, "Even (delaying the start) to the year 2000?" Both members vehemently exclaimed, "Yes!" Kreps finally responded, "Well, I havenít made the proposal anyway." Thatís how itís done, and thatís the courage we need from somewhere now.

The reality, as the Social Security trustees pointed out in their annual report this year, is that Social Security is solvent for at least 39 years -- it actually increased by a year last year. The report indicates that the system still can meet all its obligations for the next four decades without new sources of revenue or benefit cuts. Now, under President Bush, the overall federal budget cant even get to next year without a deficit -- so letís keep the perspective: What those who advocate benefit reductions really intend, unless they just donít get the reality of Social Security solvency, is using solvent Social Security money to reduce the overall federal deficit.

The fund is financially strong

The baby boom is a short transitional factor. The "boomers" arenít booming with babies themselves. The high birthrate of 2.9 that they represent (births from 1940-1969) is followed by their own parenting rate of 2.1 per woman (1970-2000), according to the National Center for Health Statistics. This is the lowest rate in history, which will thereby represent the lowest drain on the Social Security trust fund ever.

Some senators now point out that a system "repair" would amount to one-third of the Bush tax cuts even if the trust fund needs it in some 40 years (if the economy improves, it can moot even that need). So even if a temporary budget fix is needed way down the road, the Social Security trust funds will be making money later by leaps and bounds.

Another neglected point is a critical new trend: People are choosing to work longer. According to the Census Bureau, the number of people over 65 working or seeking employment has grown by 50 percent since 1980. Therefore, there will be far fewer people drawing Social Security and less drag on the system.

As pundits, politicians and editorial writers ride the steamroller crushing Social Security benefits -- either by raising the retirement age or by reducing benefits -- many citizens grow anxious at the thought that the money they pay to Social Security will never be paid back to them. If these policy gurus and politicians have their way in changing the system, our fears may turn into reality.

Don't touch that money

Ironically, Smith and those like him neglect to mention that the Federal budget's insolvency is what is now certain for several years to come. Yet miraculously, Congress is able to fix the federal budget every year there is a deficit -- for instance this yearís $400 billion shortfall -- by declaring that weíll just eat the deficit.

Cutting benefits is unfair and unnecessary. Raiding the solvent Social Security system is an excuse to fund the insolvent federal budget. To preserve Social Security, the money contributed by taxpayers must remain untouched by federal deficit-makers; the idea of a "lock box" is not absurd as some paint it.

Quit scaring our seniors with false claims. Social Security is just fine; what is scary are the words of our political leaders.

Robert Weiner, a public-affairs consultant, was staff director of the House Aging Committee, chaired by the late U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, from 1975 to 1980.

(Oped accompanied by Herald cartoon: Elephant pulling rug with label "Social Security" out from under two old women.)