[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[April 7, 1998]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]
Teleconference Remarks From Kansas City to Regional Social Security
April 7, 1998
The President. Good afternoon. Thank you, Ken. As Ken said, I'm speaking to you from Kansas City, where
we're talking about what we must do as a nation to strengthen Social
Security for the 21st century, and I'm looking forward to continuing to
talk with you today.
Let me begin by thanking Representatives Bob Borski, Ben Cardin, Nancy
Johnson, Jim Kolbe,
and Jerry Weller for holding these town
meetings across our Nation. For each of you lawmakers, these forums are
not the only way you've worked to strengthen Social Security.
Representatives Borski and Cardin are cosponsors of key legislation to
establish the ``Save Social Security First Reserve Fund.''
Representative Borski supports saving any budgetary surplus for
investment in Social Security, and I know Representative Cardin does as
Now, Representative Johnson has been a
strong advocate for Social Security beneficiaries. She has urged her
fellow Members of Congress to continue to act with fiscal restraint as
they debate what to do with the budget surplus. Representative
Kolbe is one of our foremost experts on retirement
and pension policy and is the sponsor of a resolution to establish a
joint commission on Social Security reform. And Representative
Weller has been a powerful voice for protecting
the Social Security Trust Fund and was an original cosponsor of the
``Social Security Preservation Act.''
Together, all of you are proving that we can work in a bipartisan
way to make sure that Social Security is as solid for our children as it
was for our parents, and I thank you for that.
As you know, this year, working together with Congress, we'll be
balancing the budget for the first time in 30 years. We have a right to
be proud of that achievement, but we must also build on it. In the State
of the Union, I called on Congress to set aside every penny of any
budget surplus until we save Social Security first. Social Security is
deeply woven into our Nation's social fabric. For 60 years, it's meant
more than an ID number on a tax form, even more than a monthly check in
the mail. It reflects our deepest values and the duties we owe to one
Today, 44 million Americans depend upon Social Security. For two-
thirds of our seniors, it's the main source of income, and one in three
beneficiaries are nonretirees. Social Security is life insurance and
disability benefits as well as a rock-solid foundation of retirement
Today, Social Security is sound, but a demographic crisis looms if
we fail to act. For over the next 30 years, 76 million baby boomers will
retire. By 2030 there will be twice as many elderly Americans as there
are today. If we don't
act now, by then payroll contributions will only cover 75 percent of
benefits. That's why I've challenged our Nation to act now to strengthen
Social Security for the 21st century.
Here are the principles I want to follow for meeting this challenge.
First, any reform should strengthen and protect Social Security for the
21st century. We can't abandon the basic core program that's been one of
the great successes of our Nation's history.
Second, we must maintain the universality and the fairness of Social
Security. For a half-century this program has been a progressive
guarantee for citizens. We have to keep it that way.
Third, Social Security must provide a benefit people can count on.
Regardless of the ups and downs of the economy or the financial markets,
we must make certain that Social Security will provide a foundation of
Fourth, Social Security must continue to provide financial security
for disabled and low-income beneficiaries. We can never forget the one
out of three Social Security beneficiaries who aren't retirees.
And fifth, any strengthening of Social Security must maintain
America's hard-won fiscal discipline, one of the main reasons we're
enjoying our prosperity today.
These are the five principles that will guide me on Social Security,
principles by which I'll judge all possible proposals. They're
principles I believe can and should guide us all as we work to forge a
national consensus for reform.
Above all, I know that we can strengthen Social Security only if we
reach across the lines of party, philosophy, and generation with open
minds and generous spirits. For too long, politicians have called Social
Security the ``third rail'' of American politics. That's Washington
language for ``You can't really discuss any changes seriously.'' This
year we have to prove them wrong.
I know that on the political calendar, 1998 is an election year. But
on the Social Security calendar, let's all resolve to make 1998 an
education year, a year we come to grips with the problems of the system
and come together to find the answers. These forums are a very hopeful
beginning, and I'm pleased to have had this chance to start this vitally
important dialog with all of you today. This December we'll host a White
House Conference on Social Security, and in January I'll convene the
leaders of Congress to draft a plan to save Social Security for the 21st
I'm confident we'll meet this challenge as Americans always do, by
working together, honoring our values, and preserving the solemn compact
between generations that helped to build our Nation.
Now I'd like to turn the discussion over to Congressman
Borski. Bob, take it away.
[At this point, Representatives hosting the regional forums each made
The President. Thank you very much, Congressmen. Let me try to go
back over some of what all of you said.
First of all, Congressman Cardin talked about the need to increase
private saving; some others did. Congressman Borski talked about the
fact that there were still some people on Social Security living in
poverty. Let me try to address those things together, along with some of
the other concerns which were mentioned. It is true that there are still
about 11 percent of our elderly people in America living in poverty. But
it's important to recognize that that's a lower percentage than in the
overall population in America, and that it's just been since 1985 that
the poverty rate among seniors was lower than the overall poverty rate.
Now, what can we do to make it better? There have to be other
sources of income. There have to be other sources of private savings.
And that is--of course, the possibility that some part of that could
come out of Social Security reform is one of the things we're
But over and above that, I'd like to point out that Congress has
done a lot of work with our administration over the last 5 years, first
of all, to save 8\1/2\ million pensions that were under water when I
took office, to stabilize 40 million others, and to make it increasingly
more attractive for employees on modest wages and for small business
employers to take out 401(k) plans, and then to make it easier for
people to move from job to job and take their 401(k) with them. We've
also dramatically expanded the availability of IRA's.
So we've tried to do some things already to help increase the
ability and the attractiveness of saving, over and above Social
Security. I don't think--no matter what we do with Social Security, the
American people are going to have to be sensitized, the younger
generation is, to do more to save for their own retirement.
On the other hand, I think it would be a great mistake, even for the
youngest members of these audiences today, to believe that we shouldn't
preserve Social Security as a universal guarantee. Because without
Social Security today, almost half the seniors in America would be
living in poverty, even though most seniors have income over and above
that. So the trick is to save Social Security but also to have more
income coming to people from private savings.
Now, let me mention just one or two other things. Nancy Johnson
talked about wanting--made one Medicare statement about annual
physicals. I believe that more and more, as people live to older ages
and are healthier, we'll have to do more preventive care within the
Medicare program. Nancy, you know, we've
worked hard to deal with--to have more mammographies, for example. We're
doing other preventive screening now. I think the more of that we do,
the more we're going to save over the long run. And more importantly,
we'll improve the length and the quality of life.
And she said, ``People want to know whether the seniors can count on
Social Security.'' The answer to that is, absolutely, yes. The Social
Security Trust Fund, according to Mr. Apfel, who has got a legal responsibility to tell the truth about
it, is stable until 2029. In 2029, shortly thereafter, the taxes coming
in will only cover about 75 percent of our obligations. One of the
reasons we want to move now is that by making relatively modest changes
now we can extend the life of the Social Security Trust way out beyond
Can young people, the high school students here, look forward to
drawing Social Security? The answer to that is, they certainly can if we
do our jobs here in the next several months. You know, a few years ago,
I can understand your skepticism because we were running huge deficits;
we were projected to have $300-billion-a-year deficits as far as the eye
can see. Now we're going to have a balanced budget sometime in the next
year, and it's projected we'll have a trillion dollars in surpluses over
the next decade--more than enough money if we do some other things to
fix the Social Security system for the younger people listening here
today. But I want to say again, no matter what we do to Social Security,
those of you who are 16, 17, 20, and 21, I know it's hard to think about
the end of your life, your later years, when you're that age, but you
will have to do more, through your employer, through your own individual
efforts, to save for your own retirement over and above Social Security
if you want to maintain your standard of living when you retire.
Now, Mr. Kolbe asked a couple of questions
about raising the retirement age, and then Mr. Weller asked about specific plans. Let me say, I don't want to
dodge any of that, but I think all those proposals should be out there
on the table. And I think that the most important thing now is, if I
advocate a specific plan right now, then all the debate will be about
that. The first thing we've got to do is to get the American people
solidly lined up behind change. Let's stick with these basic principles
I've outlined, and I want to encourage other people to come forward with
their ideas. In December we'll all sit down, come up with our--we'll all
put our various ideas on the table, and we'll begin hammering out a plan
that we can present in January.
I still hear some new ideas almost every week coming from Democratic
and Republican Members of Congress and private citizens that I think
should be aired. If I put a specific plan on the table now, it will
undermine and weaken debate, not strengthen it.
I do agree with those of you who say it ought to be possible for us
to save Social Security without a payroll tax increase. I don't think we
ought to automatically rule out any ideas over the next 30 to 50 years,
as some would do, but I think that we plainly know that we can do this
and provide for increased strength of the system without a payroll tax
increase, given current assumptions. So I believe that will be possible.
Now, let me just answer one last question. You asked about raiding
the Social Security Fund. Let me say that that just depends on how you
look at it. The Social Security Trust Fund is basically a guarantee that
certain obligations will be paid out to retirees, including the COLA, as
well as to the disabled and to those who are the survivors who are
eligible to be paid under it.
Now, in 1983, when the Social Security reforms were passed, it is
true that the Government was collecting more in Social Security taxes
than were needed in any given year to pay for that. So rather than raise
other taxes to pay for other governmental expenses, the rest of the
Government borrowed and gave a bond to the Social Security Trust Fund,
with the full
faith and credit of the United States behind it, a legal obligation to
pay back the money with interest to the Social Security Trust Fund when
it was needed to pay out. And so there is no reason to believe that all
the money that's been taken out since 1983 will not be paid back in as
soon as it's needed to meet the legal obligations of the Social Security
By doing that, by borrowing that money and paying it back, we didn't
do anything to affect the obligations of the Fund to pay Social Security
recipients in the future. But we did keep the Government from borrowing
more money out in the private sector, competing with the private sector
for money, and running interest rates up. So I think, on balance, it's
been a safe and sound thing to do, and I do not believe that the raid
has occurred on the Social Security Trust Fund. It would be a raid if
the money were not paid back when it's due to be paid to you, but the
money will be paid back when it's due to be paid to you.
And that's one of the things that we have to make sure is never
interfered with, the legal obligation of the United States Government to
replenish that Trust Fund and pay back the money when it's needed for
Thank you very much.
Note: The President spoke at 1:20 p.m. by satellite from Room 5 at Penn
Valley Community College to regional forums in Columbia, MD; New
Britain, CT; Philadelphia, PA; Sierra Vista, AZ; and South Holland, IL.
In his remarks, he referred to Commissioner of Social Security Kenneth