The other day in an office waiting room, two young women were discussing the Republican presidential situation. One said she definitely was for Mitt Romney, but the other said she had not decided yet, indicating she might tilt toward Rick Perry.
The one thing they did agree on was the belief that they would never see any benefit from the money they were paying into Social Security. When I asked how many others in their mid-20s felt the same way, they said most, if not all, of their friends.
I replied that I had felt the same way when I was their age, but that the chances are better than good that they will live long enough to recapture their contributions, although they might have to wait longer to receive their benefits. I explained that the traditional retirement age of 65 was no longer valid and change seemed inevitable in the not-too-distant future.
What I thought I was hearing from both women was an indication that in some way, Texas Gov. Perry’s recent startling indictment of Social Security was resonating with a large number of their contemporaries, those who would just as soon have the money now as later. That lack of patience for years still miles ahead is a malady of youth. The here and now is what matters.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s political inclination, that point of view does not translate into many votes. When I suggested that the trouble was that their age group had the worst percentage of turnout at the polls of any in the electorate, both young women acknowledged the fact. “We never have time,” one said, “and we too often think, ‘Why bother.’”
I replied that wasn’t the case with the upper age ranges, adding that in 55 years of covering politics I have never heard a front-running presidential candidate of either party indict Social Security the way Perry did recently. To call the Old Age Survivors Insurance program a Ponzi scheme and a major lie to our children seemed not only foolhardy but also politically self-destructive.
There are more than 40 million Americans out there who not only can be expected to take umbrage at that statement but consider it a threat to a program a huge number of them rely on. They generally react in a manner no serious candidate can afford. They head for the polls in overwhelming numbers. Unlike your group, I told the women, they do have the time to vote and they exercise the privilege in astounding numbers. And they never forget, so taking the statement back later is worthless.
Their panic also spreads to their immediate offspring, who may even be approaching the benefit age or have to supplement their parents’ incomes should Social Security disappear. And then there are those who are disabled and must depend on the program, like it or not.
I recalled that Ronald Reagan once proposed a minor adjustment to Social Security only to meet a storm of protest. He summoned his budget director to the Oval Office and politely told him never to mention the subject again in his presence. President George W. Bush expended huge amounts of his party’s political capital on his failed proposal to privatize some of the program.
Should we reform Social Security to meet a different demographic than the 1930s when it was adopted? Certainly we should, but gingerly, emphasizing obvious needed changes like elevating retirement ages and perhaps establishing a means test to keep the fund solvent for the likes of these young women.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.