President Clinton Participates in Social Security Forum

Office of the Press Secretary
(Kansas City, Missouri)

For Immediate Release April 7, 1998


Penn Valley Community College
Kansas City, Missouri

11:25 A.M. CDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.Good morning. Thank you, Governor Carnahan, for your leadership on so manyareas and your friendship. I'd like to thank the leaders of this fineinstitution for welcoming us here and for the mission they perform everyday.I thank Senators Kerrey and Santorum for their concern, longstanding, forSocial Security reform and their presence here, and Representatives Hulshofand Pomeroy, who are participating in the program, and RepresentativeMcCarthy, and also Representative David Dreier from California, who is anative of Kansas City, who are here.

I thank the members of our administration who have come whowill be participating: the Director of the Office of Management and Budget,Frank Raines; the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers; theDirector of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling; and theAdministrator of Social Security, Ken Apfel.

Attorney General Nixon, Treasurer Graeber, InsuranceCommissioner Sebelius, thank you all for being here. Mayor Cleaver, thankyoufor hosting us. I don't know if Mayor Marinovich is here or not, but ifsheis, hello. (Laughter.)

I'd also like to thank the leaders of the AARP, includingHorace Deets, and the leaders of the Concord Coalition, including MarthaPhillips, for their hosting of this forum. The AARP has long been aleadingvoice for the elderly, the Concord Coalition long a leading voice forfiscalresponsibility over the long run, and their willingness to work together isvery important. I'd also like to thank the Speaker of the House, theSenateMajority Leader, and the House and Senate Democratic leaders for nominatingand being represented here today by the members of Congress who are on theprogram.

As the Governor said, this is a good time for America and atime of great hope. Our economy is the strongest in a generation. Many ofour social problems are on the mend. Our leadership in the world isunrivalled. Within the next year, we will have a balanced budget. Andwhereonce there were deficits projected as far as the eye can see, we now haveprojected surpluses as far as the eye can see -- a trillion dollars' worthover the next decade.

But this sunlit moment is not a time to rest. Instead, itisa rare opportunity to prepare our nation for the challenges and theopportunities of the 21st century -- or in the words of the old saying, tofixthe roof while the sun is shining. In the coming century, the aging of oursociety willpresent both great challenges and great opportunities. I hope tolive to be one of those people and so, to me, it's a high-classproblem.

But because a higher percentage of our people willbe both older and retired, perhaps our greatest opportunity andour greatest obligation at this moment is to save SocialSecurity. In the State of the Union address, I called onCongress to set aside every penny of any surplus until we haddealt with Social Security first. Both parties in both chambersof Congress have joined in this call. That is the good news.

Today we turn to the business at hand -- buildingpublic awareness of the nature and scope of the problem, andbuilding public consensus for the best changes. Clearly, we willstrengthen Social Security and reform it only if we reach acrosslines of party, philosophy, and generation. And that is onereason for the broad representation of age groups in thisaudience today. We have to have open minds and generous spirits.And we all have to be willing to listen and to learn.

For too long, politicians have called SocialSecurity the "third rail" of American politics. That'sWashington language for, it's above serious debate. This year wemust prove them wrong. This conference, with its wideparticipation, is a good start. On the political calendar, 1998is an election year. But on the Social Security calendar, wemust resolve to make it an education year, when we come to gripswith the problems of the system and come together to find theanswers.

This issues is complicated, so we need the bestideas -- whatever their source. The issue is controversial, sowe have to have a national consensus on both the nature of theproblem and the direction we must take.

That's why I've asked all the members of Congress toalso host town hall meetings in their own districts. I'll betalking with several of them by satellite later today. And we'llhold more additional forums like this one around the country. InDecember, there will be a White House Conference on SocialSecurity. In January, I intend to convene the leaders ofCongress to draft a plan to save it. With this effort we canforge a national consensus, and we must.

For 60 years, Social Security has meant more than anID number on a tax form, more than even a monthly check in themail. It reflects our deepest values, the duties we owe to ourparents, to each other, to our children and grandchildren, tothose who misfortune strikes, to our ideals as one America.

Missouri's native son, Mark Twain, once said, "I'vecome loaded with statistics, for I've noticed a man can't proveanything without statistics." So I thought we would begin todaywith a few statistics. Today, as the first chart shows, 44million Americans depend upon Social Security, and for two-thirdsof our senior citizens it is the main source of income. For 18percent of our seniors it is the only source of income.

But Social Security is more than just a retirementprogram. Today you can see that more than one in three of thebeneficiaries are not retirees. They are children and spouses ofworking people who die in their prime. They are men and womenwho become disabled, or their children.

So Social Security is also a life insurance policy,and a disability policy, as well as a rock-solid guarantee ofsupport and old age. That is why we have to act with care as wemake needed repairs to the program occasioned by the huge growthin retirees.

Since its enactment over 60 years ago, SocialSecurity has changed the face of America. When PresidentRoosevelt signed the bill creating the Social Security system,most seniors in America were poor. A typical elderly person senta letter to FDR begging him to eliminate "the stark terror ofpenniless old age." Since then, the elderly poverty rate hasdropped sharply. You can look here and see that in 1959 thepoverty rate was over 35 percent for retirees. In 1979, it haddropped to 15.2 percent. In 1996, the poverty rate is down below11 percent.

Now, there's something else I want to say aboutthis. Even though most seniors need other sources of income inaddition to Social Security to maintain a comfortable lifestyle:if Social Security did not exist, today half of all Americanretirees would be living in poverty -- 60 percent of all women.Fifteen million American seniors have been lifted out of povertythrough the Social Security system.

Today the system is sound, but the demographiccrisis looming is clear. The baby boomers -- 76 million of us --are now looking ahead to their retirement. And people, clearly,are living longer, so that by 2030, there will be twice as manyelderly as there are today.

All these trends will impose heavy strains on thesystem. Let's look at the next chart here. You can see that in1960, which wasn't so long ago, there were over five peopleworking for every person drawing Social Security. In 1997, lastyear, there were over three people -- 3.3 people -- working forevery person drawing. But by 2030, because of the increasingaverage age, if present birthrates and immigration rates andretirement rates continue, there will be only two people workingfor every person drawing Social Security.

Now, here's the bottom line. The Social SecurityTrust Fund is sufficient to pay all the obligations of SocialSecurity -- both retirement and disability -- until 2029, afterwhich it will no longer cover those obligations. Payrollcontributions will only be enough to cover 75 cents on the dollarof current benefits.

If we act now, we can ensure strong retirementbenefits for the baby boom generation without placing an undueburden on our children and grandchildren. And we can do it, ifwe act now, with changes that will be far simpler and easier thanif we wait until the problem is closer at hand. For example, a$100 billion of the budget surplus, if used for Social Security,would add a year or more to the solvency of the Trust Fund withno other changes being made. Other changes, which could be made,can be phased in over time, and keep in mind, small changesdecided on now can have huge impacts 30 years from now.

So how should we judge the proposals to change theSocial Security system? Here are principles that I believe weshould follow, and they're on the next chart here. I believe,first of all, we have to reform Social Security in a way thatstrengthens and protects a guarantee for the 21st century. Weshould not abandon a basic program that has been one of thegreatest successes in our country's history.

Second, we should maintain universality andfairness. For half a century, this has been a progressiveguarantee for citizens; we have to keep it that way. It was notuntil 1985 that the poverty rate among seniors was lower than thepoverty rate for the population of America as a whole. It is anastonishing achievement of our society that it is now so muchlower, and we should not give it up.

Third, Social Security must provide a benefit thatpeople can count on. Regardless of the ups and downs of theeconomy or the financial markets, we have to provide a solid anddependable foundation of retirement security.

Fourth, Social Security must continue to providefinancial security for disabled and low income beneficiaries. Wecan never forget the one in three Social Security beneficiarieswho are not retirees.

And fifth, anything we do to strengthen SocialSecurity now must maintain our hard-won fiscal discipline. It isthe source of much of the prosperity we enjoy today.

Now, these are the principles that will guide me aswe work to forge a consensus. I hope they're ones that all ofyou can also embrace. This national effort will call on the bestof our people. It will require us to rise above partisanship.It will require us to plan for the future, to consider new ideas,to engage in what President Roosevelt once called "bold,persistent experimentation." It will remind us that there aresome challenges that we can only meet as one nation actingthrough our national government, just as there are others we canbetter meet as individuals, families, communities.

This is also a challenge for every generation. Tothe older Americans here today, let me say, you have nothing toworry about. For you Social Security is as strong as every. Tothe younger people here today who may believe that you will neversee a Social Security check -- indeed, I saw a poll whichpurported to be serious that said that Americans in theirtwenties thought it was more likely they would see a U.F.O. thanthat they would every draw Social Security. (Laughter.) Thatskepticism may have been well founded in the past, but just as weput our fiscal house in order, we can and must put SocialSecurity in order.

And above all, to my fellow baby boomers, let me saythat none of us wants our own retirement to be a burden to ourchildren and to their efforts to raise our grandchildren. Itwould be unconscionable if we failed to act, and act now, as onenation renewing the ties that bind us across the generations.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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