For months, President Bush has been crisscrossing the country to garner support for his proposal to restructure Social Security. But with recent polls showing the public not buying the idea, the White House is zeroing in on those they think can make or break his proposal: young Americans.
On Thursday, the commander in chief corralled a crowd of youngsters at the Milwaukee Art Museum to sell his proposal to let young workers put a portion of their payroll taxes into individual investment accounts.
"This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. This is a generational issue," Bush told the crowd. "This issue is particularly relevant to people who are young, because you are paying payroll taxes into a system that's going bankrupt."
As it stands, Americans contribute part of their paycheck to Social Security every month, and that money gets paid out to retired workers. But since baby boomers are having fewer children than their parents did, there are currently fewer people putting money into the system and more cashing out (see "The Social Security Debate: The Basics You Need To Know").
Under Bush's proposal, young workers will have the option of investing a portion of their payroll tax in government-approved options and cashing out when they retire. While critics say workers should not be able to gamble away what should be a guaranteed source of income for retirees, supporters say workers should be able to determine for themselves where the money goes. Another key debate in the president's reform plan concerns having to borrow money to pay current retirees if young workers start putting their money into private accounts.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that 66 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds support the idea of private accounts, compared to less than 50 percent in every other age group. Christy Paavola, 22, was one of several students who addressed the president during his discussion in Milwaukee. "I really like the idea of personal savings accounts," the Concordia University senior said. "I like the fact that I have control over my own money."
While Bush was joined by supporters onstage, a group of young protesters, who were screened out of the town-hall meeting, rallied outside to voice their opposition to the plan. "I believe that privatizing Social Security is a ludicrous idea," said Jenny Collins, 24. "It's a complete disregard for social responsibility and the social contract that we keep with people."
On Friday, congressional Democrats led by Representatives Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) announced a new youth organization called Students United to Protect Social Security, which will work with other youth organizations such as Rock the Vote and the NAACP Youth and College Division on 43 college campuses.
"Young people need to be aware of what the president is trying to do, because they are going to inherit the results," Wasserman Schultz said. "[Many] are justifiably skeptical of the president's Social Security privatization plan. They understand that privatizing it takes away guaranteed retirement security and puts those funds into a risky investment fund."
According to the Social Security Administration, nearly two-thirds of older Americans rely on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their income, and Social Security is the only source of income for 22 percent of beneficiaries.
While Bush's proposal would not affect seniors already receiving Social Security, he said young adults should be concerned for the future of the program. "I'm going to continue reminding youngsters that they need to get involved in this issue, because if the Congress doesn't act, we have saddled a young generation with an incredible burden, and I don't think that's right.
"Now is the time for people in Washington, D.C., to set partisanship aside and solve this issue once and for all."