Clinton Kicks Off Social Security Debate
President says the nation's retirement safety net needs fixes, but not a drastic overhaul
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (April 7) -- President Bill Clinton began Tuesday what he hopes will be yearlong conversation on ways to shore up Social Security in the face of an expected onslaught of Baby Boomer retirees over the next 20 years.
At a half-day forum in Kansas City, Mo., Clinton suggested it will take modest changes, not radical surgery, to keep the retirement system solvent into the next century.
"We should not abandon a basic program that has been one of the great successes in our nation's history," Clinton said.
The president endorsed no specific solution to Social Security's demographic dilemma, but outlined five principles he said should shape a legislative answer to anticipated shortfalls in the next century.
Clinton said the nation can strengthen and reform Social Security only if leaders reach across the lines of party, political philosophy and generations.
"We have to have open minds and generous spirits and we all have to be willing to listen and to learn," Clinton said. "For too long, politicians have called Social Security the third rail of American politics. That's Washington language for, 'It's above serious debate.' This year we must prove them wrong."(416K wav sound)
Clinton said the issue is complicated, "so we need the best ideas whatever their source."
He vowed to make 1998 an education year when the nation comes to grips with the problem and examines possible answers. Clinton said he has asked federal legislators to hold similar town meetings in their own districts. (480K wav sound)
The Kansas City event was the first in a yearlong series of town hall meetings on Social Security, and 700 Midwesterners turned out for it. It's one of the president's favorite formats to generate solutions to problems.
Via satellite, the president also participated in regional Social Security town meetings organized by lawmakers in Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and he joined a roundtable discussion on the issue later in the day. There also will be a White House conference on Social Security in December.
Then, in January 1999, Clinton said, he plans convene congressional leaders to draft a plan to save Social Security.
If the nation acts now, Clinton said, the changes necessary to keep the program solvent will be less painful than if leaders wait.
Clinton's five 'principles'
In his talk, suggested five principles that he said should inform legislative proposals to reform the system.
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"I believe, first of all, we have to reform Social Security in a way that strengthens and protects the guarantee for the 21st century," Clinton said. "We should not abandon a basic program that has been one of the greatest successes in our country's history."
Clinton also called for maintaining "universality and fairness;" providing benefits that people can count on regardless of swings in the economy and financial markets; continuing aid for disabled and low-income beneficiaries; and maintaining the federal budget's "hard-won fiscal discipline" in any Social Security bail-out plan.
Clinton said 44 million Americans depend upon Social Security and for two-thirds of senior citizens, it is the main source of income. For 18 percent of senior citizens it is the only source of income.
He credited Social Security with "changing the face of America" since its creation by President Franklin Roosevelt 60 years ago. Seniors then were very poor, said Clinton, who quoted a letter written by one senior to Roosevelt asking him to eliminate "the stark terror of penniless old age."
In 1959, Clinton said, the poverty rate among retirees was greater than 35 percent; in 1979, it was 15.2 percent; and in 1996, it was less than 11 percent. He said if Social Security did not exist today, half of all retirees would be living in poverty.
Still, Clinton said "the demographic crisis is looming," since in 2030 there will be twice as many elderly as there are today. In 2030, he said, if present trends continue, there will be only two people working for every one person drawing Social Security benefits.
The Kansas City meeting was co-sponsored by the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates fiscal responsibility, and the American Association of Retired Persons, a major lobbying group for seniors.
It is estimated that by 2029, payroll contributions will cover only 75 percent of projected Social Security benefits. A majority of Americans do not believe Social Security will be around to protect them when they reach retirement age.
Lawmakers are considering an array of reform proposals to preserve the retirement system beyond the Baby Boom generation.
The president has proposed setting aside any budget surpluses to bolster Social Security until a long-term solution is found.
Some Republicans instead want that money to be given back to Americans to start their own retirement accounts.
Other reforms to reduce expenditures include gradually raising the age recipients begin to receive benefits from 65 to 67, lowering annual cost-of-living increases and limiting benefits based on a recipient's other income and assets.
To boost the amount of money coming into the program, some people have suggested raising income taxes on received Social Security benefits and enlarging the contributor pool by making local and state government workers join the system.
And, as is often the case in Washington, others are proposing a bipartisan national commission be set up to study the options.
CNN's Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.