Saving Social Security

By: U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun

"Save Social Security first." This was President Clinton's answer, given in his State of the Union address, to the question of what to do with the surplus of funds that remained after he had balanced the budget. A great many people have a grow many ideas hut the President decided that every penny of the budget surplus should be reserved until Social Security has been strengthened.

Frankly, as a people we are aging. This year, an American will turn fifty every nine seconds. A significant portion of our population will begin to retire in about a decade. A demographic change of this magnitude poses new challenges to Social Security. Let me explain why.

Simply stated, Social Security depends on having people in the workforce supporting people who have retired. When it started, over 60 years ago, there were five workers for every beneficiary. Now there are three, and that number is declining. In about 14 years, Social Security will have to start spending its accumulated trust fund, and by 2029, will be insolvent. Some people have used this looming problem as the basis for a call for privatization. "Get the government out of the retirement security business, and let me make my own investments," is the call.

It is important to keep in mind that Social Security functions as a safety net, a bulwark against the vagaries of the market. Just as markets rise, so do they fall. What goes up will eventually come down. What will happen to those who make unwise investments, or whose investments fail to provide a return sufficient to their livelihood after their working years are over? Will we go back to the days of poor houses? Is that the future we will pass on to the next generation?

You can understand why the current privatization plans being offered are not attractive alternatives for a secure future. Fortunately, we now enjoy a window of opportunity that I hope we will not allow to close. We have achieved a balanced budget by virtue of a lot of planning and a little bit of luck. President Clinton's 1993 budget plan, which did not receive even a single Republican vote, put this country on a glide path to a balanced budget. The Congressional Budget Office now projects that over the next 10 years we will enjoy an accumulated budget surplus of over $655 billion. The surplus for Social Security over the same period will be over 1.1 trillion. I applaud President Clinton for taking the lead and setting this money aside for Social Security.

Of course, there are people who disagree. Many of the same folks who brought us the budget deficit are now delusional with tax cut fever. My friend and colleague, Senator Pat Moynihan has cautioned that point of the budget deficit spending during the 1970's was to "starve the beast" - to crowd out social spending by running up deficits and debt service. That could well be at work here, if we fail to take advantage of the opportunity the new budget picture presents. We have a chance to fix the looming retirement security crisis - if we do not succumb to the urge to spend our children's inheritance.

Our generation has a duty to give the next generation of Americans no less than we inherited. We were given a nation which had a commitment to see to it that the elderly who had survived their working years could live in relative comfort. I reached my decision to run for the Senate in 1992 after a conversation with my then 15-year old son who said to me, "Mom your generation is leaving this country worse off than you found it." The generational compact which says we will do at least as much for them as our parents did for us makes it imperative that we tackle the challenge of retirement, but for theirs, as well.

Eighty percent of all Americans rely on Social Security as their primary income in retirement. We must make sure that Social Security still will be around in five years, in 25 years, and in 105 years.

This is not the time to rush to judgement, we should be prudent. Before we make any decisions, it is absolutely critical that every American has the information they need to fully participate in this dialogue that is so crucial to their future retirement security.

The President recently recommended we hold national town hall meetings to discuss Social Security reform. I have already held two such meetings in Illinois, one in Belleville and one in Springfield. People care about their future; we all have a vested interest in saving Social Security. Only after this vetting process is held across the country can we arrive at reform that the entire nation can embrace.

Global Action on Aging
PO Box 20022, New York, NY 10025
Phone: +1 (212) 557-3163 - Fax: +1 (212) 557-3164


We welcome comments and suggestions about this site. Please send us your name for our postal and electronic mailing lists.