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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 19May 16, 2005


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lead article
U.S. gov’t faces uphill battle
in drive against Social Security
Protesters picket April 18 speech by U.S. president George Bush in Columbia, South Carolina, where he appeared as part of nationwide tour pushing Social Security “reform.”

In an April 28 prime-time televised news conference, U.S. president George Bush continued to push uphill in the campaign the ruling class is leading to undermine Social Security as a federally guaranteed pension for all.

In addition to reiterating his earlier proposal to create individually-managed retirement accounts that would cut the benefits the government is obligated to pay, Bush added that he favored determining the size of an individual’s retirement pension based on government income tests. The last proposal would open the door to undermining the universal character of cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security pensions, which are now increased every year to make up for inflation.

Bush demagogically presented both proposals as aimed at helping the working class.

“I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off,” Bush said during the press conference. “The whole goal would be to see to it that nobody retired in poverty,” he claimed.

“I like the idea of giving someone ownership. I mean, why should ownership be confined only to rich people?” Bush said, plugging the proposal on putting benefits in private accounts. “Why should people not be allowed to own and manage their own assets who aren’t the, you know, the so-called investor class? We’re saying, you ought to have the right to set up a personal saving account so you can earn a better rate of return on your own money than the government can.”

Bush presented these reforms as steps needed to “save” Social Security. These changes, however, are aimed at undermining the character of Social Security as a right for all—one that, however inadequate, more and more working people have come to depend on as their main source of retirement income since the early 1970s.

Facing a deepening crisis of state finances, politicians in both ruling parties—Democrats and Republicans—are discussing further steps to roll back the social guarantees that workers have won. This crisis is propelled by the downturn in the capitalist economy worldwide and the ballooning costs of reorganizing and extending the power of the U.S. military. Since the start of the year, Bush has made 27 major speeches on the theme of cutting Social Security in 24 states. Opinion polls indicate, however, that the White House is far from getting popular support for its proposals. At the same time, Bush indicated he refuses to rule “by the polls.” He made it clear he intends to push through legislation in Congress containing at least some of his proposals on Social Security “reform,” especially since the Democratic “opposition” accepts his claim of a crisis but has presented no alternatives to his plan.

Currently Social Security benefits are determined by income up to a maximum adjusted annually. The payments increase based on standard adjustments for increases in inflation and a national average wage index. Bush suggested April 28 that benefits would increase at different rates based on income determinations.

The cost-of-living adjustments were first introduced in 1972, part of a series of social gains that were a product of the mass civil rights battles of the 1950s and ’60s. These gains included Medicare, Medicaid, disability insurance, food stamps, and indexation of pensions to inflation. Only since then, Social Security became a pension that working people can, and increasingly do, retire on. Some two-thirds of the U.S. population over the age of 65 rely on government-guaranteed pensions as their main source of retirement income. For about half of those, Social Security accounts for more than 90 percent of their income.

The cost-of-living adjustments and other indexed increases in benefits have been a prime target of politicians in both parties that have advocated curtailing Social Security. Growing sections of the ruling class argue that when Social Security first became law the average life expectancy was a lot lower and that “too many old people” today present a problem for the wealthy classes necessitating major cuts in benefits.

“Social Security worked fine during the last century, but the math has changed,” Bush said on April 28. “There’s a lot of us getting ready to retire who will be living longer and receiving greater benefits than the previous generation. And to compound the problem, there are fewer people paying into the system.”

The president also acknowledged that Washington uses Social Security funds for other government programs.

“Our system here is called pay-as-you-go,” Bush said. “You pay into the system through your payroll taxes, and the government spends it. It spends the money on the current retirees and with the money left over, it funds other government programs. And all that’s left behind is file cabinets full of IOUs.”

Some $1.7 trillion in funds from Social Security payroll taxes has already been used to cover military spending and other priorities set in Washington.

Bush also sought to deflect criticism in the April 28 press conference for the skyrocketing price of fuel. He promised that “there will be no price gouging at gas pumps in America.” He also said Washington was looking to diversify its energy sources, including boosting nuclear energy production.

As the price of oil has increased, several companies that operate nuclear power plants in the United States have begun discussions on sites for new plants. This mirrors an international trend toward the renewed development of nuclear energy. In the United States this has been stalled since the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Coal has seen a more immediate boom in response to the growing price of oil. Energy companies have been putting in a record number of requests for permits to build coal-fired power plants. More than 100 such requests were made in 2004, more than were constructed in the preceding 12 years.
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