Karl Grisham’s voice quivered as he recalled listening to Franklin D. Roosevelt introduce Social Security to the nation 70 years ago.
“I was about nine or ten at the time and my father put me in front of the radio and said, ‘Listen because this is the most important law in my lifetime and in your lifetime.’ And indeed it has proved to be that,” Grisham said.
Grisham was one of more than 200 people, mostly seniors, who attended a Feb. 25 town hall meeting convened by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th) to discuss Social Security in light of the president’s plan to privatize the system.
Van Hollen spoke for about 30 minutes on the system before opening the meeting to questions from the standing-room only crowd at the Rockville Senior Center.
“I think one of the benefits of this discussion is that Americans are learning more and more about a program that many of them did not realize was a great treasure to our country,” the congressman said in introductory remarks, “and while I disagree with the president’s proposals today, I do think the fact that we’ve had a national conversation on this issue has been important.”
Van Hollen said, “The [Social Security] system is not bankrupt and it’s not going bankrupt.”
By the Social Security Trustees’ most conservative estimate, the program will continue to be able to pay out 100 percent of promised benefits through the year 2042 and 70 percent of promised benefits thereafter, Van Hollen said. Another estimate, from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, says that Social Security will be able to pay out 100 percent of benefits through 2052 and 80 percent of promised benefits thereafter.
The anticipated shortfall certainly shouldn’t be ignored, Van Hollen said, but shouldn’t be cause for doomsday predictions either. Rolling back the Bush administration’s tax cuts on merely the top 1 percent of income earning households in United States — those earning more than $1 million annually — would make up the shortfall projected by the Social Security Trustees, Van Hollen said.
Asked in an interview which solutions to the funding shortfall he supports, Van Hollen said that "there are a menu of options and we need to get together on a bipartisan basis" to find solutions.
“My view is that we should roll back the tax cut on the top 1 percent for a variety of reasons," he said. "It's important that those funds either be allocated to the Social Security shortfall or be used to reduce the deficit or make good on our commitment to No Child Left Behind.”
“I WAS VERY PLEASED with the turnout. Obviously it's an issue on lots of people's minds,” Van Hollen said.
Asked if the town hall meeting was part of an effort within the Democratic Party to spread information about Social Security, Van Hollen replied, “It’s absolutely part of a national effort to make sure that we get the facts straight." With Congress in recess last week, many of Van Hollen’s Democratic colleagues were holding similar meetings, he said, but so were Republicans.
“The interesting thing was in their meetings they were hearing the same thing we were. The people were very reluctant to jump on to the privatization proposal and therefore what I think you’re going to see is a lot of the Republican members of congress are going to step back.”
The meeting, in a Democratic congressional district, reflected opposition to the Bush plan to privatize Social Security and a consensus that it is an important social program.
Breathing life into that feeling were the comments of seniors like Grisham who remember the program’s introduction, or at the least had seen its importance through the decades.
Attendees asked how they could help prevent massive changes to the program while ensuring its long-term solvency. Many also asked questions specific to their own benefits.
But for most of those in attendance, potential changes would have little or no effect on their own benefits, especially since it might be years before the Bush proposal is implemented if it is adopted at all.
“I’m not a retiree yet, but I’m looking at it. And people my age and older I think are pretty well convinced on this issue,” said Eric Starin of Rockville. “Where the president is getting traction is with my kids and their friends. He’s getting traction with this divisive … attitude. And the fact is that I’m here, not to protect my Social Security, because I think that’s going to be OK, even with Bush’s proposal. It’s to protect their Social Security.”