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Social Security Debate Gets Personal

Times Staff Writers

Far from his dairy farm in central Utah, 27-year-old Josh Wright stepped onto a stage with President Bush on Tuesday and related the warning his father had given the other day in the barn.

“He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘Don’t depend on Social Security. You’re independent.... Don’t plan on having Social Security there when you get older.’ ”

The president looked at Wright approvingly. “At your age,” he said, Social Security “will be bust by the time it comes for you to retire.”

But for Alice Froeschle, a retired teacher from Jenks, Okla., Social Security is a “guarantee that workers who retire will not be destitute in their old age.” Speaking to a reporter Tuesday at the request of congressional Democrats, Froeschle said the current system was far better than having workers “gamble their retirement away in the stock market.”

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And so it went Tuesday, as Bush and his Democratic opponents each sought to bring an uncertain public to their side in the battle over the government’s biggest social program.

The president and his Republican allies want to allow workers to divert some of their Social Security tax money into privately owned stock and bond accounts. Many Democrats say this would reduce the program’s promised retirement benefits while exposing inexperienced investors to the risks of the market.

By showcasing real people and their personal stories, both sides were trying to reach the public and, in turn, lawmakers in Congress, many of whom see big political risks in reshaping one of the government’s most popular programs.

One recent poll suggested that the public was not yet demanding that Congress follow the president’s lead. In the CNN, Gallup, USA Today survey of 1,008 people, 71% said Social Security was in “crisis” or faced “major problems,” but 55% said it was a “bad idea” to add private investment accounts while cutting promised benefits.

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About 52% said they disapproved of Bush’s handling of Social Security, while 41% approved. The poll was conducted Friday through Sunday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Bush, who led a talk-show-style “conversation” with workers in a cavernous government auditorium Tuesday, tried to turn up the heat on Congress to restructure the program.

“If you’re 20 years old, in your mid-20s, and you’re beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now,” Bush said.

Congressional Democrats responded by accusing Bush of exaggerating Social Security’s financial predicament to make it easier to sell his proposal for private investment accounts.

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“It’s not true to say it’s going bankrupt,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee. Private accounts, he said, “would put at risk the income of seniors today and tomorrow.” Social Security currently benefits 47 million seniors and disabled Americans.

The Democrats offered phone interviews with individuals who told of their wariness to trade a portion of Social Security’s promised safety net for the unpredictable returns of the stock markets.

“I’ve always counted on Social Security as a retirement savings plan, not as an investment I’d be taking risk with,” said Mary Mulhern, 45, a writer and graphics artist in Tampa, Fla.

Although the president has not put forward a specific plan, he has signaled his support for a two-pronged approach: Promised benefits would be reduced across the board for future retirees, but workers would be allowed to divert part of their payroll taxes to personal investment accounts, whose growth could help offset the cut in government payments.

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The White House and many Republicans say their overhaul proposal, which is still being worked out, also aims to close a funding gap that will arise as a big wave of baby boom retirees begins to draw money from the system.

Wright, who traveled from his dairy farm to express support for Bush’s plan, said he and his father had been supplementing the Social Security benefits paid to his grandfather after a stroke forced him to quit working. Wright said he thought personal investment accounts might make his own retirement a little more secure.

“I want to make sure that when I get that age that I don’t have to sit down and tell my boys ... ‘You guys have to keep working so I can survive,’ ” Wright said.

Private accounts might make a Social Security overhaul more politically palatable by offering younger workers something in return for benefit cuts. But they could also force the government to borrow trillions of dollars over several decades to replace the diverted payroll taxes.

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Bush said private accounts were an essential element of his “ownership society” agenda, which emphasizes giving Americans more control over their financial futures.

That was music to the ears of Scott Ballard, who operates a private ambulance service in Wenatchee, Wash., with his brother and who is not convinced that the money he is sending to Washington will still be there when he retires.

“I don’t have any control over what’s going on, even though it’s my money that I’m putting into the system,” Ballard said. With private accounts, he added, “I don’t have to worry about whether or not the system is going to be insolvent because that money that I put in is there.”

Ballard was attending the forum at the invitation of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that supports Bush’s proposal for private accounts.

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The speakers offered by the Democrats, by contrast, saw problems with private accounts.

Peter Yacobellis, 25, of Garden City, N.Y., who is an aide to a Democratic candidate for New York attorney general, said he had no inclination or aptitude to invest part of his Social Security taxes himself.

“A private system would allow people like me to fall through the cracks,” he said. “You can’t put your money in and know what you’re going to have when you retire.”

He also said Bush was overstating the financial problems facing Social Security. With the program’s trust fund good for 37 years, he said, there is surely enough time for the government to make the adjustments necessary to keep the program afloat.

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White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday’s forum was part of a campaign to build public support for Bush’s restructuring initiative.

“We are stepping up our public outreach and national discussion with the American people,” McClellan said. “The first step is to make sure that we have a common understanding of the problem facing Social Security.”

White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. acknowledged that Bush faced an uphill struggle persuading his own party to go along on Social Security.

“One of the challenges we have to address is Congress,” Card said, speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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“The majority of the House carries the [Republican] label; the majority of the Senate carries the label,” Card said. “There is also a reality that the label allows us to collectively put the calendar together, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee us the votes.”

Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.


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