Politics Laces Discussion at Social Security Forum
By: Richard W. Stevenson
Cranston, R.I. -- The fourth question for Vice President Al Gore at Wednesday's town hall discussion here on Social Security came from Eve Goldberg, who turned 100 on April 18. Given that she does not have forever, she said, she wondered when politicians were going to stop talking about fixing the retirement system and get on with the job of making sure it would be there for her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
"Mrs. Goldberg, God bless you, what a wonderful question," replied Gore, warming to the opportunity for a little Oprah-style politics along with the policy wonkery he mastered long ago. "Here's the reason we shouldn't act right now," Gore said. "They don't call it the third rail for nothing. Both political parties have scars to show from past battles fought in and around Social Security policy. And since it's so important to get it right, it's worth taking a little time."
Gore said he was optimistic that the Clinton administration and Congress could work out a solution next year, and he said bipartisanship on the issue could help reduce public cynicism about the federal government. But Wednesday's discussion -- the second of four that the White House has planned for this year -- showed that consensus among politicians and among the public remains a long way off.
On the stage alongside Gore were Social Security experts and lawmakers from both parties, including Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who made the case for allowing Americans to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts. He said that because workers did not want to pay higher taxes to deal with Social Security's looming financial problems and retirees would not countenance big benefit cuts, the natural answer was to seek the higher returns available in the stock market.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said privatization might be attractive on Wall Street, but made little sense for the working poor. "If you want to shoot craps, remember that you could win or you could lose," Rangel said by way of reminder that stock markets go down as well as up, an observation that brought a roar of agreement from many in the audience.
But the deep division over how to deal with Social Security was clear in the audience of 1,000 people. One questioner said the debate seemed to have become a grab for more money rather than a consideration of Social Security's role as an intergenerational guarantee against poverty in old age. "All I hear about is me, me, me -- am I going to get back what I put in," she said. The owner of a small business warned that any increase in the tax bill he has to pay for each worker he employs means he would hire fewer workers, leading Gore to reiterate President Clinton's statement of several months ago that the White House sees no need for an increase in payroll tax rates. To a single father who asked how he could save for his retirement when he had difficulty enough supporting his elderly mother while saving for his children's education, Gore said the lesson should be that Social Security "is really a program for all generations -- when the benefits are adequate for seniors, it takes the pressure off you."
And when the talk turned to whether politicians could put aside partisanship to deal with Social Security before the 2000 presidential race, Gore deadpanned, "Nobody will be thinking about elections in 1999."
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