Bush's Social Security strategy: Divide and conquer


WASHINGTON - I have to give the president credit for being bilingual. Over the past weeks, he's been talking about Social Security as if we were two Americas. Not red and blue. Not rich and poor. Just younger and older America.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush held one of those carefully staged "conversations" to push his plan for privatizing Social Security. In soothing language, he told the older generation not to worry their pretty little gray heads about the whole thing: "If you're a senior receiving your Social Security check, nothing is going to change."

But he told the younger generation to be afraid, very afraid: "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."

This is not a linguistic accident. The administration's goal is to placate the elders and alarm the young, to divide (the generations) and conquer. And it's having some success.

In a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, nearly two-thirds of those under 30 say they don't think Social Security will be there for them when they retire. This is the age group also most likely - by 55 percent to 42 percent - to think that privatizing is a "good idea."

In fairness, the Social Security debate is prodding all Americans to think about the future in a country where the long run has been in awfully short supply. But at the same time, we are being encouraged by the White House "reformers" to think as if we lived in subdivided generations rather than in connected families across the life span.

We are, in short, expected to think as a series of "me generations," forgetting how an elderly parent's solvency and security are linked at the heart and the pocketbook to their children and grandchildren.

Five years ago, there were 4.2 million Americans over 85 years old. By 2050, there will be 20 million. There are already millions of 65- and 70-year-old retirees who still have parents as well as children and grandchildren. They fuel the concern about Social Security shortfalls. But they are also reminders of very long-term family concerns.

As recently as 1960, half our seniors were officially poor. Now, largely because of increases in Social Security, only 10 percent are. We know that has meant a better late life. Have we forgotten that their greater security also means that middle-age Americans can provide more help to their children?

Social Security is not the crisis it is touted as, and privatization is certainly not the cure. Medicare is a much larger iceberg, and the privatization plans being hatched raise the risk - and the deficit - while they lower the benefits. There are saner and safer options to the great unraveling offered by Mr. Bush.

Still, it's the attempt to put a bilingual wedge between the two Americas that strikes me. And maybe the good news is that it isn't working among the older nation.

About two-thirds of Americans over 50 do indeed believe their check is in the mail and that "nothing is going to change." At least for them. Nevertheless, the same two-thirds think privatizing is a "bad idea." They are looking ahead to younger Americans.

The people often slandered as greedy geezers seem to have a perspective from their place in history. The elders in my family remember the Depression. The baby boomers remember dot-com boom and bust.

All in all, I am not surprised that the people who want to unravel the social contract start with young adults. Those who are urged to feel afraid, very afraid, have both the greatest sense of independence and the most finely honed skepticism about government.

But this is a time to also use the shared language of family. Sometimes, truly, grandmother knows best.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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