- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

George W. Bush's proposal to let workers put part of their Social Security taxes into their own investment funds got a big boost last week from a study showing that more than half of all Americans are not saving enough for retirement.
As Mr. Bush prepared to announce his plan to partly privatize Social Security (though he will not utter the word "privatization"), a new study of Federal Reserve data found that 56 percent of households are not putting away enough money for a decent retirement.
The study, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America, also found that 60 percent of Americans do not expect their retirement savings to support them adequately in their senior years.
Those in the upper income ranges, of course, reported having enough put away for a comfortable retirement, but a large number of Americans say they expect their standard of living in retirement will be below what it is now. For example, more than 75 percent of those earning $25,000 a year or less said that they have not set aside enough to take care of their needs in their older years.
Black and Hispanic households are especially vulnerable. On average, only 28 percent and 24 percent respectively have sufficient savings for a minimally comfortable retirement.
About 55 percent of workers who participate in business-sponsored 401(k) investment funds or other pension plans are building adequate retirement savings, but millions of Americans either do not participate or work for small businesses that offer no such plans.
This sorry state of affairs is a powerful reason why Mr. Bush's proposal to let workers voluntarily invest, say, 2 percent of their payroll taxes into their own safe, long-term investment accounts, makes sense. The money could be put into high-yield, broad-based, blue-chip mutual funds, U.S. Treasury bonds, or other rock-solid, safe investments that municipal, state and business pension funds invest in now.
Partial privatization is an idea whose time has come. Millions of young workers know their payroll taxes will give them a pathetic return on their investment, perhaps 1 percent to 2 percent. What's worse, that is a negative return for minority-group members whose lifespan is, on average, shorter than that of whites.
Because of much higher, regressive payroll tax rates, relative to future benefits, a single 30-year-old worker can expect to receive less than a 1 percent return on his contributions in retirement. A married 30-year-old will get a 1.4 percent return.
A worker who plans to retire on Social Security 20 years from now will get less than a 3 percent return, according to cost-benefit studies by the Heritage Foundation. A person retiring in the next 15 years will get a 3.1 percent return. These are pathetic returns on investment by any criterion.
Moreover, they will have no assets to leave to their heirs. You lose all that money when you pass away. Under an invested plan, you own all of the invested assets that you have built up over your working life to live off its interest and dividends, to buy an annuity for monthly income, and to leave to your children.
Mr. Bush is not likely to propose a specific reform plan that Al Gore and the anti-investment Democrats can demagogue as Mr. Gore has already begun to do. Instead, he will lay down seven principles upon which any reform plan must be based. They are:
Reform must preserve the solemn commitment of Social Security no reduction in benefits for current retirees or those near retirement.
Social Security taxes must not be increased.
Reform should be fair to all generations.
The entire $2 trillion Social Security surplus should be protected by a legal "lockbox." Social Security's money belongs to Social Security.
Reform should have bipartisan support. Social Security is too important for a partisan approach.
Reform should include voluntary personal retirement accounts so all workers have the opportunity to build wealth and share in the economic success of our nation.
No government investment (Bill Clinton's proposal) in private stocks or bonds.
Besides the need to change the system to prevent its future insolvency, the issue comes down to one of simple fairness and equity. Why shouldn't middle- and lower-income workers have, and be encouraged to have, higher-yield investments of their own to build a secure retirement, just as wealthier people do?
The liberal elitists argue that most blue-collar workers are not be able to make wise investment decisions on their own. Al Gore told The Washington Post Monday that "while some people will invest wisely, others will not" and would risk of losing all their money.
In fact, the New York Stock Exchange says millions of lower-income workers are already investing on their own and doing quite nicely, thank you. Besides, that problem can be easily solved by prudent investing rules and by maintaining a social safety net for anyone who may need it.
In a conversation I had last Saturday at the annual White House Correspondents dinner, Donna Shalala, secretary of health, education and welfare, told me that her invested pension grew by 30 percent in the past year. But she said she was opposed to letting other people have that opportunity under Mr. Bush's plan. "Too risky," she told me. But apparently it is not too risky for her.
Why shouldn't working-class people have a chance to earn 10 percent, 20 percent, or more, on their hard-earned income, instead of the measly 1 percent to 3 percent the government's trickle-down Social Security system will give many future retirees? That is the issue here. Let the debate begin.


Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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