President Clinton Participates in Social Security Discussion

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 21, 1998


12:05 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. I'd also like to thankRebecca Rimel. And I'm delighted to join the Pew Charitable Trustsand all of you for this important discussion of Social Security. ThePew Trust has done a great service to the country for making thispossible. We have to discuss how we can ensure that one of thegreatest achievements of this 20th century continues to serve ourpeople very well into the next.

Before I start, let me tell you about -- a little bitabout my upcoming visit to Africa. Because tomorrow, I'm going toembark on the most extensive trip ever taken to that continent by anAmerican President, where I hope to introduce Americans to a newAfrica -- a place where democracy and free markets are taking hold.I hope all of you will follow my travels closely.

These are good times for America. We have 15 millionnew jobs, the lowest unemployment in 24 years, the lowest coreinflation in 30 years, the highest homeownership in our history.Last month, I was pleased to present the first balanced budget in ageneration. Indeed, we can now look forward to $1 trillion ofsurpluses over the next decade. But I don't believe we should spenda penny of this surplus until we have saved Social Security first forthe 21st century.

I am very pleased with the strong support the Americanpeople have shown for this meeting and for meeting this challenge. Ithank "Americans Discuss Social Security" for leading the way. For60 years, Social Security has meant more than a monthly check in themail. It reflects our deepest values -- our respect for our parents,our belief that all Americans deserve to retire with dignity.

We can't break this solemn compact between thegenerations. And if we act soon -- and responsibly -- we canstrengthen Social Security in ways that won't unfairly burden anygeneration. So I challenge my own generation to act now to protectour children, to ensure that Social Security will be there for themafter a lifetime of hard work. And I challenge young people to dotheir part, as well, to get involved in our national effort tostrengthen Social Security for the 21st century.

In the coming months, the Vice President and I willattend a series of nonpartisan forums to help reach a nationalconsensus on how to go forward. In December, I'll convene a WhiteHouse Conference on Social Security, with a view to early 1999, whenI hope and believe we can craft historic, bipartisan legislation tosave Social Security.

In the darkest days of the Great Depression, Americanshad the courage to commit to a daring plan whose impact would not befully known for a generation. In the midst of these prosperoustimes, we must strengthen that commitment for generations yet tocome. Your views will be vital to our work here in Washington, and Ilook forward to hearing your comments.

Thank you very much.

THE PRESIDENT: Let me try to respond a little bit towhat all the folks said. Obviously, I don't know in the previousmeetings exactly how much information was out there and how much not.And we're in the process, as I said, of a year-long dialogue. Butlet me just offer a couple of observations.

In 1983, there was a bipartisan commission to deal withthe problem in Social Security. And they came up with a whole set ofchanges which included, very slowly over a period of years, raisingthe retirement age to 67 for people drawing full Social Securitybenefits -- which will happen sometime in the next century -- becausethe average life expectancy is much longer. When Social Security wasenacted and the retirement age was 65, the average American did notlive to be 65 years old. So that happened.

Then there was an increase in the payroll tax back in'83, and it was estimated that for a period of time Social Securitywould bring in more money than it paid out, and that the money couldsafely be pledged, in effect, to buy government bonds, to finance thedeficit. And that's what has essentially happened. Now, I've donemy best to try to turn that situation around by getting us back tobalance and now moving us into surplus so that we can recover some ofthese funds in the future to deal with the long-term challenge ofSocial Security.

But here's the basic problem -- which I'm sure youunderstand. In 2029, all the baby boomers will be 65 or over. Mostof them will be in the retirement system. At that time, if wecontinue to work at present rates, retire at present rates and growour population at present rates, there will be only about two peopleworking for every one person drawing. Even today, very few peoplecan actually live on only their Social Security income. But it'simportant to remember that if we didn't have Social Security income,nearly half the seniors in this country would not be above thepoverty line.

So the trick is how to make this system last beyond 2029without having undue new tax burdens on younger people who are tryingto raise their children; what options are out there for doing that;and how can we also make it easier, as many of you said, to save foryour own retirement. The one think I think is very important is thatyoung people understand especially what the realities are. I mean, Isaw a survey the other day that said that some people -- a lot ofpeople in their 20s thought it was more likely that they would see aUFO than that they would ever draw Social Security. Now, that's notaccurate. We can easily save this system. And we may be able to doa number of things, including some of the things that some of yousuggested that would give a higher rate of return on the investment.

But under presently conceivable circumstances, no matterwhat we do with the Social Security system, Americans should besaving more for their own retirement. So we're working very hardright now to make it easier, for example, for more people in smallbusinesses and more self-employed people to take out 401(k) plans; totake those plans with them when they move jobs; to have a system thatwould guarantee the security of that kind of retirement savings. Andwe've done a number of things in the last two years -- there is somemore legislation before Congress now. And some of you in thesehearings may have even greater ideas about what we can do to make iteasier for people to save for their own retirement.

But I always tell people that we actually have twothings we have to do. We have to secure the safety, the soundnessand the salvation of Social Security into the 21st century and lookat all the options that have been raised here by you. But we alsohave to educate the American people that they must save more fortheir own retirement; and then we have to make it easier for them todo so and to succeed in doing so.

The last point I'd like to make is this: because of thereductions in the deficit, the reduction in interest rates, we mayhave already added a few years to the life of the Social Securitytrust fund. We can put a lot of years on the life of the fund, wecan stabilize the fund. And now that we've eliminated these chronic,huge deficits of the last decade and a half, we can set this thingright. And if we act now -- meaning early next year -- with thesupport of the American people across party lines and regional linesand income lines, we can make modest changes today that will have ahuge impact in the next century.

So the last thing I'd like to say to all of you is, oneof you said that you wanted us to do what we needed to do in a hurryand in a non-partisan, fair way. That's the message I think that allof us need to hear -- all the members of Congress, all the members ofour administration. We do not need to put this off. Many people areafraid that anything you do to Social Security is political dynamite.I think it's worse dynamite to walk away from a problem when we cansolve it with discipline, modest, far-sighted actions now that willhave a huge impact 20 and 30 years from now.

So I thank you. I was profoundly impressed by what youhad to say, and I wish I had more time to go through all yourquestions. I know in two hours, Ken Apfel, our Social SecurityAdministrator, will be on this program and he'll be able maybe topick up some of the more specific questions you asked me and othersthat you doubtless will have for him.

And again let me thank the Pew Charitable Trust. Thisis a wonderful public service.

What's New - March 1998

National Association of Attorneys

Medicare Commission Members

California Disaster Relief Efforts

Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship Training

Prime Minister of Thailand

First Woman Space Shuttle Commander

Irresponsible Tax Reform

School Safety Event

Health Care Commission Report

Unemployment at Lowest Level

Ratify NATO Enlargement

Promote Science And Math

Health Care For American Families

Springbrook High School

Quality Child Care

UN Secretary General Annan

Social Security Discussion

Irish Prime Minister Ahern

Targeted Medicare Expansion

Action To Reduce Drunk Driving

Violence Against Women

St. Patrick's Day Reception

Legislation Ensuring Food Safety

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