ROBERT WEINER: Hi, Tara Lynn.How are you?
WAGNER: Iím very well, thank you.
So now Bushís agenda calls for a ten-year, one trillion dollar overhaul to the Social Security plan.Is that the right move, do you think?
WEINER:Well, Tara Lynn, what Bush is doing is turning Americaís elderly into Americaís charity for his tax cuts and for his 200 billion dollars in Iraq.There is no need because there is no crisis in Social Security.Iíve talked with actuaries, and the reality is that the Congressional Budget Office has said that Social Security is solvent for fifty years, and thatís ten more than we previously thought.Social Securityís own trustees added three years last year.Senator Sarbanes told me that 40% of the deficit is because of the Bush tax cuts and that the rest comes from the Iraq war, and a small portion comes from 9/11 security.So what we have is an administration that is turning Americaís elderly into Americaís charity.
WAGNER:Now the president is saying, and he released a statement this morning, the White House released a statement this morning saying if we donít have these changes, there simply not going to be enough money to pay Social Security benefits to our children and our grandchildren.If we donít see or if we donít have these changes or if we donít have an enormous increase in payroll taxes, what do you think then, or do you think he is wrong in that?Do you think there is a way to extend these benefits to the next couple of generations without his plan and without a huge hike?
WEINER:Well, this is disingenuous.The federal government is what canít get to next year without a huge 400 billion dollar deficit.Social Security is solvent for 50 years and counting and as people make more money because of slight inflation.We never had a Social Security deficit.It does not exist.This is bipartisan.What both parties have done is take from the Social Security trust fund to pay for the deficit that the rest of the federal government has incurred, and thatís not fair.We cannot balance the federal budget on the backs of the elderly.
They have a secure, solvent system that they have counted on.Iím going to be counting on it.Iím 57 years old.I want my Social Security benefits.And let me show you something: The Social Security administration sends out a letter to anyone who asks, ďWhat would you make when you retire?Ē and they are saying in the worst-case scenario, we have 73% of the benefits guaranteed for 42 years (Show letter from SSA).So even in the worst-case scenario, this is not a big deal.And in the worse case scenario it would take one-third of the Bush tax cuts to keep it completely solvent.
WAGNER:But now, I remember this being a huge issue in the last election -- both candidates talking about how we were going to fix the problem of Social Security.Are you saying that there isnít really a problem, and this is all just ďChicken LittleĒ tactics?
WEINER:Youíre exactly right.The Social Security deficit is a myth.Iím going to show you a cartoon in the Miami Herald in the recent piece that I wrote, ďWe Need Claude Pepperís Courage Now,Ē where he fought against this some 30 years ago, and it has [a cartoon of] an elephant pulling the rug under an old lady.It is entitled, ďSocial Security.ĒThere is no excuse for taking the money from the Social Security trust fund and using it in paying the deficit the rest of the federal government incurs.There is no Social Security deficit.The system is solvent; it is sound. The proposals are a complete charade against Americaís seniors to try to solve other problems.
WAGNER:But for the people who might be thinking that they donít agree with the Bush plan -- the overhaul that he has suggested -- it should be noted that he suggested a very similar plan four years ago that went nowhere because of strong political resistance.So is there any reason we should be worried that this time it may go through, or is it going to suffer the same fate?
WEINER:Depends.If he would win the election and pull the congress with him and the Supreme Court with him, you never know of the danger of what this guy could do!But let me tell you about that plan.Now, the former administrator of the Social Security system, Ken Apfel, has pointed out that the Bush voluntarization plan would not save money; it would cost two trillion dollars in ten years and eight trillion dollars in forty years.And the reason it would cost so much is because he also made a pledge not to cut benefits.And if you donít cut benefits and you take some of the money out and you voluntarized it and put it into the very risky stock market -- by the way, which is itself going nowhere -- seniors donít want their money in the stock market now -- youíre costing eight trillion dollars in the next forty years.His plan will and should go nowhere when heís scaring Americaís seniors in the process.
WAGNER:So the bottom-line, do we need any change?Even a really small change in Social Security in order to insure not todayís seniors, not even the baby-boomer generation but people in their twenties now to make sure that they have these benefits when they reach the age of Social Security?
WEINER:Well, no, we donít.We need no changes now.
WAGNER:No changes?None at all?
WEINER:No changes.And if we did down the road, there would be an incremental change that the federal government would be easily able to confront.We just came up with 200 billion dollars for Iraq.If we need sixty billion dollars for Social Security because of an emergency, in fifty years, do you think we could worry about it then?
WAGNER:All right, thank you very much, Mr. Weiner, for being on the show.We appreciate you taking time to talk with us about this important issue.
WEINER:Thanks a lot.
(Tallahassee Democrat story October 15, 2004 follows belowÖ)
The U.S. Congressional Budget Office has estimated the Social Security system is solvent for at least another 48 years. Yet the survey found 63 percent of Americans think the system will have insufficient money to pay full benefits within 40 years.
"The media will write 'crisis' every time, and our political leaders will do the same," said former U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly. "But we don't do a good job of saying, 'The system is not broke.'"
Kennelly, a former Democratic congresswoman from Connecticut, was one of a dozen political and social service officials who attended a news conference for the release of the survey commissioned by the Claude Pepper Foundation. The foundation is part of the Pepper Center Institute on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University. The center honors the late U.S. congressman and U.S. senator from Florida, who was a champion of senior-citizen issues.
The survey was based on interviews with 600 registered voters across the nation. The foundation did an additional survey of 150 registered voters in Florida, though the responses did not vary greatly from those of the national survey.
Among the findings:
ē 59 percent of Americans say a presidential candidate's stand on Social Security is important to them, and 20 percent said they would vote against a candidate who disagreed with their position on Social Security.
ē 54 percent said they expected to get back less money than they paid in from Social Security when they retire.
ē 41 percent support allowing individuals to invest a portion of the money they have paid to Social Security in the stock market.
ē 62 percent oppose raising the retirement age from 65 to 70 - a move Pepper fought successfully as the chairman of the U.S. House Aging Committee in 1978.
"Claude Pepper would roll over in his grave if he heard some of the proposals (today)," said Robert Weiner, former staff director of the U.S. House Aging Committee under Pepper. "No one has matched his courage in maintaining Social Security for the nation's senior citizens."
The survey found 71 percent of respondents think the Social Security system needs to be revamped, but they varied on the four most popular proposals: paying Social Security benefits from other government funds (35 percent), increasing the minimum retirement age (23 percent), increasing payroll taxes (19 percent) and decreasing benefits (7 percent).
"There is no silver bullet," said pollster Sergio Bendixen. "Each potential solution has a heavy political price tag attached to it."
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 fund is financially strong
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 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 canít 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 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 budgetís 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.