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Promises to Keep

April 2005 IBEW Journal

President Bush has spent a lot of time and political capital this year trying to convince the American public to support his idea of adding private accounts to Social Security.

He, Vice President Cheney, Treasury Secretary John Snow, their friends on Wall Street and other allies are traveling across the country spending millions to get their message out. As you’ve probably heard, it goes like this: Social Security is in crisis. Let’s fix it by allowing workers to invest up to 4 percent of their income on stocks and bonds for private, "personal" retirement accounts.

But despite the high-level road show, the attempts to drum up public support must be a disappointment to the administration. It appears that the more people know about the plan to loot the Social Security trust fund in favor of private investment accounts, the less they like it. It turns out the nation’s 70-year-old retirement system is popular and the people who are closest to it—the ones receiving its monthly benefits—like it the most. Public polls show skepticism of the plan growing among all age groups, with only 35 percent of Americans in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll approving of the president’s approach.

With few details and very little discussion of alternatives, the president’s effort to sway grassroots opinion to his side has nearly failed. And it’s no wonder. For the tradeoff of the possibility of a couple of dollars in investment returns if the market is good, Americans are being asked to allow for the dismantlement of one of the most successful federal programs ever, all while plunging the federal deficit even more into the red. This "solution" is no fix for Social Security’s bottom line problem: eventually its obligations will exceed its income. Even the administration admits that its plan for private accounts will do nothing to help the system’s finances.

The president is not offering any constructive ideas to address the funding problem he is traveling around the country calling a crisis. He does not appear to be considering any real fixes. He is instead pursuing this plan at a time when his tax and spending policies have created severe budget problems.

An Economic Policy Institute analysis concludes the White House’s proposed 2006 federal budget perpetuates spending policies that could eventually prevent the federal government from funding traditional obligations like Social Security and Medicare. "The administration’s fiscal policies render meaningless its promises not to cut benefits for today’s retirees and workers nearing retirement age," said EPI tax and budget expert Max Sawicky. "It would be folly to pretend that essential programs could be spared the chopping block."

Social Security is a promise America makes to its elderly. It’s not a welfare program; those receiving benefits spent a lifetime paying into the system in a cycle that has worked for generations. It provides a base income to help retirees avoid a life of poverty after a lifetime of work, and it has done just that for 70 years.

A new portion of the IBEW’s Web site (www.ibew.org) devoted to Social Security contains links to sites with analyses of the president’s plan and newspaper articles exploring the subject from many angles.

The president deserves credit for bringing Social Security to the top of his domestic agenda. But he’s going about it the wrong way. A program with this great of an impact on society cannot be solved through a blatant, ideological power play designed to appease only wealthy campaign contributors. If President Bush fails in his effort to add private accounts to Social Security, we cannot declare victory and go home. We will need a bipartisan, reasonable approach to address the long-term problems with Social Security and fix them in a way that respects the fundamental principles of the system.

Now that the subject has everyone’s attention, let’s put the partisanship aside and get real.

Edwin D. Hill

International President

   President’s Message

"Even the administration admits that its plan for private accounts will do nothing to help the system’s finances."