- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

I began following the Social Security debate long before my oldest son, Jim Martin, reached retirement age this year and reached the firm conclusion that nothing will change unless we "old fogies" stop allowing the politicians to use us to block reform.

When Jim assumed the presidency of a senior citizen advocacy group, the 60 Plus Association, I was proud when his organization decided to look to the future and became the first seniors organization to endorse personal retirement accounts for young people.

Mine is not a greedy generation. Sure, we witnessed a lot in our lives: the Depression, World War II, the assassination of President Kennedy, the divisive war in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and the evil terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. That's why we need to start thinking about those who will follow us.

I was already 20 years old when the Social Security system became law during the dark days of the Depression. I'm now 85. And my new husband, Bill, is 102.

Social Security was good to my generation and to the one that followed. Almost without exception, anyone who's been fortunate enough to live beyond the age of 70 has received far more in benefits than they ever paid in taxes.

But times have changed. My husband and I are living proof that people are living far longer than Social Security's architects ever imagined. Because few lived to my age back then, there were 16 people in the work force paying Social Security payroll taxes for every senior citizen drawing benefits in Social Security's earliest years. There are now just three. And the ratio keeps declining.

Despite a series of payroll tax increases and a gradual increase in the age at which you can start drawing full benefits, the current system will soon start running out of money. Instead of receiving total benefits that exceed their total payroll taxes, future retirees will get back less. In fact, according to some estimates, in a few decades Social Security will be able to pay just 70 cents out of every promised dollar. Is this the future we want for our grandchildren and their children?

With thousands of young people making sacrifices far from home, waging war on terrorism, wouldn't it be nice if we seniors could show them we care enough about their future to fix Social Security?

According to the newspaper stories I read, the Social Security reform commission headed by former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan will soon publish its recommendations. The commission is expected to recommend three variations on a simple theme: that the best way to guarantee today's young people a decent retirement income is by allowing them to use a professional manager to invest some of their payroll taxes in the economy. That's right: Let them purchase stocks and bonds, as workers in more than a dozen other countries including Australia, Britain, Mexico and Sweden, according to a Heritage Foundation study are now allowed to do.

If I had been able to do so 40 or 50 years ago, I'd be wealthy today. Wealthy enough, for example, to hire somebody to pound the typewriter for me. And wealthy enough to hire somebody to hurt for me when my arthritis starts hurting. And wealthy enough to worry for me when I lay awake at night worrying about the young people of America, our children and grandchildren. I'm sure you get the picture.

Yes, the stock market goes up and down with the economy. But building a retirement portfolio is a very long-term endeavor. If you start at age 20, or 25, you are investing for 40 or 50 years.

Even at its low point right after the September 11 attacks, the stock market was considerably higher than it was just a few years ago and many times higher than at its highest point during the Reagan years.

If this is the best way to guarantee young people a decent retirement, Washington needs to move ahead. And we seniors need to become cheerleaders, or stand aside. So count me as being 100 percent behind President Bush's plan to reform and save social security for future retirees.

Mary Martin Solliday, a former schoolteacher, businesswoman and realtor, wrote this essay for 60 Plus, a nonprofit senior citizen lobby group.

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