WASHINGTON -- President Clinton drove forward yesterday with his campaign to make saving Social Security one of the nation's key political issues, devoting both his weekly radio address and a special appearance in a 10-city teleconference to the "challenge" of keeping the retirement program solvent for the next century.
"If we act soon and responsibly, we can strengthen Social Security in ways that will not unfairly burden any generation -- retirees, the baby boomers, their children or their children's children," he said in his morning radio speech.
Two hours later, Clinton listened intently as groups of 100 citizens in studios from Boston to San Francisco talked about their fears and hopes for the future of Social Security.
"Listen to us, show us that you listen," chanted members of the audience in Tallahassee, Fla. From San Francisco, Rhonda Johnson, 29, said, "We need confidence to be sure the money will be there in the long run."
The president wants to make a bipartisan solution to Social Security's problems one of the highlights of his second term. He is encouraging and promoting a year of debate, leading to a White House conference in December, and culminating in negotiations next year with congressional leaders to prepare legislation.
"So I challenge my generation to act now, to protect our children and ensure that Social Security will be there for them after a lifetime of hard work," he said in the radio speech. "I challenge young people to do their part, get involved in this national effort to strengthen Social Security for the 21st century."
The aging of the baby boom generation -- those 76 million Americans born in the years 1946 through 1964 -- will put a squeeze on Social Security's ability to deliver retirement, disability and survivors benefits.
By 2029, the "Social Security trust fund will be depleted and payroll contributions will only cover 75 percent of benefits," Clinton said.
The president and members of Congress hope they can take steps in 1999 to strengthen the system and avert drastic tax increases or major benefit cuts in the future.
Potential solutions that will be debated this year include:
Increasing the retirement age;
Expanding the amount of wages subject to payroll taxes;
Making more of the retirement benefits taxable;
Trimming the annual cost-of-living allowance given to the 43 million Social Security beneficiaries;
Bringing several million more state and local government employees into the Social Security system; and
Permitting citizens to switch some of their payroll taxes into personal investment accounts, a concept called privatization.
Acknowledging the political peril, Clinton told participants in the 10-city hookup, "I think it's worse dynamite to walk away from the problem." But saving Social Security is not sufficient to assure a comfortable life after work, he reminded them. "No matter what we do, Americans should be saving for their own retirement."
Pub Date: 3/22/98