[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[February 9, 1998]
[Pages 196-201]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at Georgetown University
February 9, 1998

    Thank you very much. A special thanks to those of you who had to 
wait all night to get in. [Laughter] Hope you won't be disappointed. 
    Mr. Vice President, Father 
O'Donovan, to all the groups here who are 
concerned with Social Security, especially to Congressman Penny and the Concord Coalition and John Rother and the AARP, I thank you all for being here.
    I thank Senator Bob Kerrey, who when he 
cast the decisive vote for our budget in 1993 said that he would do so 
only if I were also committed to dealing with the long-term structural 
problems of Social Security, to heal the deficit there as well. I thank 
Gene Sperling and the members of my staff 
who've worked with us on this. And thank you, Mannone Butler, for embodying what this struggle is all about. 
Weren't you proud of her? She did a great job, I think. [Applause] Thank 
you very much.
    When I first ran for President 6\1/2\ years ago now, I came to this 
hall to set out my vision

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for 21st century America and a strategy for achieving it. Often in the 
years since, I have come back here to discuss our Nation's most 
demanding challenges. And on many occasions, but none more relevant than 
today, I have recalled the assertion of my freshman professor in the 
history of civilization course, Carroll Quigley, that the distinguishing 
characteristic of Western civilization in general and the United States 
of America in particular is what he called, ``future preference'': the 
idea that the future can be better than the present or the past; that 
each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to work to make it so, 
to plan for it, to work for it, to invest for it.
    There is no better example of that principle for the strength of 
America than the opportunity and the duty all of us as Americans have 
now to save Social Security for the 21st century. So today I return to 
discuss what we have to do to achieve that and why it is so important.
    You know, there was a recent poll which said that young people in 
the generation of the students here felt it was far more likely that 
they would see a UFO than that they would draw Social Security. 
[Laughter] And others may think that it's a long way off, as Mannone 
said, and the Vice President said he thought it was a long way off.
    A couple of days ago I went to New Mexico to visit our national 
labs; you may have seen the story. And our national labs at Los Alamos 
and Sandia and Lawrence Livermore, where we do a lot of the research 
that not only helps us to preserve the security of our smaller and 
smaller nuclear arsenal but helps us to deal with our environmental 
questions and a lot of other fascinating challenges of the future--but 
anyway--after I finished this, I had lunch with a few of my friends, 
including a man that I went to Georgetown with. And at the end of the 
lunch, he whipped out this photo and gave it to me, and we were sitting 
in a park together, about a week after I graduated in 1968. And I looked 
at that photo, and I said, ``My goodness, where did all the time go? It 
seems like it was yesterday to me.''
    I say that to make this point: It may seem a long way away from the 
time you now--where you are until you need retirement. It may seem a 
long way away before most of your parents need retirement, but it isn't. 
And great societies plan over long periods of time so that individual 
lives can flower and take root and take form. And that is what we have 
to do today.
    Social Security is a lot more than a line in the budget. It reflects 
some of our deepest values, the duties we owe to our parents, the duties 
we owe to each other when we're differently situated in life, the duties 
we owe to our children and our grandchildren. Indeed, it reflects our 
determination to move forward across the generations and across the 
income divides in our country, as one America.
    Social Security has been there for America's parents in the 20th 
century, and I am determined that we will have that kind of security for 
the American people in the 21st century. We are entering this new 
millennium, the new century, with restored confidence; the information 
age, a growing global economy, they're changing the way we live and 
work. And the scope and pace of change, well, it may seem commonplace to 
those of you who have grown up with it, but to people my age it is still 
truly astonishing. And I can tell you, it is without historical 
    For a long time, our country failed to come to grips with those 
changes, and we paid the price in a stagnant economy and increasing 
inequality among our working families, in higher child poverty, in 
record welfare rolls, higher crime rates, other deepening social 
problems. Before the present era, we had only run budget deficits, and 
the deficit, I think, came to symbolize what was amiss with the way we 
were dealing with the changes in the world. We had only run budget 
deficits for sound economic reasons, either because there was some 
overwhelming need to invest or because there was a recession that 
required stimulation of the economy or because there was a national 
emergency like war. The idea that we would just simply have a structural 
deficit and run one year-in and year-out was unheard of. But that is 
exactly what has happened throughout your lifetime.
    And it got so bad in the 1980's that between 1981 and 1992 the total 
debt of the country was quadrupled--quadrupled--in a 12-year period, 
over and above the previous 200 years. That raised interest rates. It 
took more and more tax money away from investments in education, for 
example, or the environment to pay interest on the debt. It slowed 
economic growth, and it definitely compromised your future.

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    Five years ago I determined that we had to set a different course, 
to move past the debate that was then paralyzing Washington and, 
frankly, didn't have much to do with the real world, between those who 
said Government was the enemy, those who said Government was the 
solution, and as long as you can fight about something, then you don't 
have to get down to the nitty-gritty of dealing with the real problems.
    When the British Prime Minister was here last week, Tony 
Blair, we stressed that we both think, and many 
other leaders increasingly around the world are beginning to think, that 
this debate is fruitless and that there has to be a third way, that 21st 
century government, information age government, must be smaller, must be 
less bureaucratic, must be fiscally disciplined and focus on being a 
catalyst for new ideas and giving you and all other Americans the tools 
they need to make the most of their own lives.
    For 5 years we have reduced the size of the deficit, reduced the 
size of Government, dramatically reduced the budget deficit by over 90 
percent, but continued to invest in your future. And in very dramatic 
ways that's changed the experience of going to college.
    Student loans that are guaranteed by the Government have been made 
less expensive and easier to repay. There are hundreds of thousands of 
more Pell grant scholarships, 300,000 more work-study slots. AmeriCorps 
has allowed 100,000 young people to earn money for college while serving 
in their community. There are now tax-free IRA accounts for college 
education. Last year we enacted the HOPE scholarship, which is a $1,500 
tax credit for the first 2 years of college. And then there's a lifetime 
learning tax credit for junior and senior years, for graduate schools, 
and for adults who have to go back for further training. For the first 
time in history, while reducing the deficit by 90 percent, we can 
honestly say, ``If you're willing to work for it, whatever your 
circumstances, you can go on to college in the United States,'' and that 
is a very important achievement.
    Now, all of these things have worked together to give us the 
strongest economy in a generation, almost 15 million new jobs, the 
lowest unemployment rate in 24 years, the lowest inflation rate in 30 
years, the highest homeownership in history, average incomes rising 
again. I've submitted to Congress for 1999 the first balanced budget in 
30 years. All that is a remarkable achievement, but as I said, we have 
to be thinking about the future. And all of you know to a greater or 
lesser degree of specificity, every one of you know that the Social 
Security system is not sound for the long term, so that all of these 
achievements, the economic achievements, our increasing social coherence 
and cohesion, our increasing efforts to reduce poverty among our 
youngest children, all of them are threatened by the looming fiscal 
crisis in Social Security.
    Today I want to talk about what it is and how we propose to deal 
with it. And as the Vice President said, we should use the economic good 
times. That old saying that you don't wait for a rainy day to fix the 
roof is good for us today; it's very sunny outside. And on this sunny 
day, we should deal with Social Security.
    In very specific terms, we've got a great opportunity because it is 
projected that if we stay with the present budget plan, that taking 
account of the fact that we won't always have the greatest economic 
times as we've had now--there will be times when the economy will grow 
faster, times when it will grow slower, we may have recessions--but 
structurally, we have eliminated the deficit, so that over time we 
should have a balanced budget, and over time, most times we should be 
running a surplus now if we stay with the discipline we have now over 
the next couple of decades.
    Now, if that's so, it is now estimated that with normal ups and 
downs in economic growth, over the next 10 years, after 30 years of 
deficits, the United States will have a budget surplus of somewhere in 
the range of a trillion dollars in the aggregate over the next 10 years. 
I have said, before we spend a penny of that on new programs or tax 
cuts, we should save Social Security first. I think it should be the 
driving principle of this year's work in the United States Congress: Do 
not have a tax cut; do not have a spending program that deals with that 
surplus; save Social Security first.
    That is our obligation to you and, frankly, to ourselves. And let me 
explain that. This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every 
generation. We now know that the Social Security Trust Fund is fine for 
another few decades. But if it gets in trouble and we don't deal with 
it, then it not only affects the generation of the baby boomers and 
whether they'll have enough to live on when they retire; it raises the 
question of whether they will have enough to live on

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by unfairly burdening their children and, therefore, unfairly burdening 
their children's ability to raise their grandchildren. That would be 
unconscionable, especially since if you move now, we can do less and 
have a bigger impact, especially since we now have the budget surplus.
    Let me back up just a minute, mostly for the benefit of the young 
people in the audience, to talk a little bit about the importance of 
this effort. It's hard for even people in my generation to understand 
this, much less yours, but early in this century, to be old meant to be 
poor--to be old meant to be poor. The vast majority of people over 65 in 
America early in this century were living in poverty. Their reward for a 
lifetime of work, for doing right by their children, for helping with 
their grandchildren, unless their kids could take care of them, was 
living in poverty.
    If you ever have a chance, you ought to read some of the books that 
have the thousands of letters that older people sent to President 
Roosevelt, begging him, in the words of one typical letter writer, to 
eliminate, and I quote, ``the stark terror of penniless, helpless old 
age.'' That's what prompted President Roosevelt to launch the Social 
Security system in 1935, to create what he called the cornerstone of a 
civilized society.
    Now, for more than half a century, Social Security has been a 
dramatic success. If you just look at the first chart over here on the 
right, you will see that in 1959--I don't see as well as I once did--
[laughter]--the poverty rate among seniors was still 35 percent. As 
recently as 1959, still over a third of seniors lived in poverty. By 
1979, it had dropped to 15.2 percent. By 1996, it had dropped to 10.8 
    To give you an idea of the profound success of the program over the 
last 30 years--as you know, there have been increasing number of 
children being raised in single-parent households, where the incomes are 
not so high--the child poverty rate in America is almost twice that. But 
no one can begrudge that. So the first thing we need to say is, Social 
Security has succeeded in ending the stark terror of a penniless old 
age. And that is a terrific achievement for the American society.
    Now, it's also known, however, that the changes that are underway 
today will place great stresses on the Social Security safety net. The 
baby boomers are getting gray. When my generation retires--and I'm the 
oldest of the baby boomers; I was born in 1946, so I'm 51--and the 
generation is normally held to run for the 18 years after that; that's 
normally what people mean when they talk about the baby boomers--it will 
dramatically change the ratio of workers to earners, aggravated by 
increasing early retirements and other things, offset by gradual 
increase in the Social Security retirement age enacted back in 1983. So 
if you look at that, that's the second chart here.
    In 1960 there were 5.1 Americans working for every one person 
drawing Social Security. In 1997 there's still 3.3 people working for 
every one person drawing Social Security. In 2030, the year after the 
Social Security Trust Fund supposedly will go broke unless we change 
something, at present projected retirement rates--that is, the presently 
projected retirement age and same rates--there will be two people 
working for every one person drawing Social Security.
    Now, if you look at that plus the present investment patterns of the 
funds of which are designed to secure 100 percent security and, 
therefore, get a somewhat lower return in return for 100 percent 
security for the investments, that's what will cause the problem. So if 
you look at the presently projected retirement and the presently 
projected returns, that will cause the problem.
    It's very important you understand this. Once you understand this, 
you realize this is not an episode from ``The X-Files,'' and you're not 
more likely to see a UFO if you do certain specific things. On the other 
hand, if you don't do anything, one of two things will happen: Either it 
will go broke, and you won't ever get it; or if we wait too long to fix 
it, the burden on society of taking care of our generation's Social 
Security obligations will lower your income and lower your ability to 
take care of your children to a degree most of us who are your parents 
think would be horribly wrong and unfair to you and unfair to the future 
prospects of the United States.
    So what's the bottom line? You can see it. Today, we're actually 
taking in a lot more money from Social Security taxes enacted in 1983 
than we're spending out. Because we've run deficits, none of that money 
has been saved for Social Security. Now, if you look at this little 
chart here, from 1999 forward we'll be able to save that money, or a lot 
of it, anyway. We'll be

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able to save a lot of it that will go into pure surplus in the budget. 
It can be invested. But other things will have to be done, as well. That 
will not be enough. And if nothing is done by 2029, there will be a 
deficit in the Social Security Trust Fund, which will either require, if 
you just wait until then, a huge tax increase in the payroll tax or just 
about a 25 percent cut in Social Security benefits.
    And let me say today, Social Security--I want to put that in, too, 
because I want you all to start thinking about this--Social Security was 
conceived as giving a floor for life. It is not enough to sustain the 
standard of living of almost any retiree retiring today. So you also 
will have to make provisions for your own retirement savings, and you 
should start early when you go out and go to work, with a 401(k) plan or 
    But this is what is going to happen unless we change. If we change 
now, we can make a big difference.
    I should also point out that Social Security also goes to the 
spouses of people when they're widowed. Social Security also goes to the 
disabled. There's a Social Security disability program. Cassandra 
Wilkins, who's here with us, who the Vice 
President recognized, ran the Social Security disability program for me 
when I was Governor. It's a very important program. But all of these 
things should be seen in terms of these economic realities.
    Now, again I say, if we act soon, less is more. If we can develop a 
consensus as a country to act soon, we can take relatively modest steps 
in any number of directions to run this 2029 number well out into the 
future in ways that will keep Social Security's role in providing some 
retirement security to people without unfairly burdening your generation 
and your ability to raise your children to do that. And I can tell you, 
I have had countless talks with baby boomers of all income groups, and I 
haven't found a single person in my generation who is not absolutely 
determined to fix this in a way that does not unfairly burden your 
generation. But we have to start now.
    We have to join together and face the facts. We have to rise above 
partisanship, just the way we did when we forged the historic balanced 
budget agreement. This is--as you can well see, this is reducible to 
stark mathematical terms. This need not become a partisan debate. Oh, 
there ought to be a debate, a good debate on what the best way to invest 
the funds are; there ought to be a good debate on what the best 
tradeoffs are between the changes that will have to be made. But it 
ought to be done with a view toward making America stronger and, again, 
preserving the ties that bind us across the generations.
    I have asked the American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP, 
a leading voice for older Americans, and the Concord Coalition, a 
leading voice for fiscal discipline, to organize a series of four 
nonpartisan regional forums this year. The Vice President and I will participate. I hope the Republican and 
Democratic leadership will also participate. I was encouraged that 
Speaker Gingrich said the other day that he 
felt we should save the surplus until we had fixed the Social Security 
    The first forum, which will set out before the American people the 
full nature of the problem--essentially, what I'm doing with you today 
with a few more details--will be in Kansas City on April 7th. Then in 
subsequent ones we will hear from a variety of experts and average 
citizens across all ages. It is very important to me that this debate 
involve young people--very important--because you have a huge stake in 
it, and you need to imagine where you will be and what kind of 
investment patterns you think are fair for you and how you think this is 
going to play out over the next 20, 30, 40 years. We want people of all 
ages involved in this.
    This national call also will spread to every corner of the country, 
to every Member of Congress. There are other private groups which have 
to play a role. The Pew Charitable Trust has launched a vital public 
information campaign, Americans Discuss Social Security. On March 21st, 
I will help kick off the first of many of their townhall meetings and 
    Now, when we go out across the country and share the information and 
get people's ideas, then, at the end of the year in December, I will 
convene a historic White House Conference on Social Security. And then, 
in a year, I will call together the Republican and Democratic leaders of 
the House and Senate to begin drafting comprehensive, bipartisan 
landmark legislation to save the Social Security system.
    This national effort will require the best of our people, and I 
think it will get the best of our people. It will ask us to plan for the 
future. It will ask us to be open to new ideas, not to be hidebound and 
believe that we can

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see the future through the prism of the past, but it will ask us to hold 
on to the old values that lifted our senior citizens from the burden of 
abject poverty to the dignity of a deserved good, solid old age.
    Keep in mind, most of you who are sitting out here can look forward 
to a life expectancy well into your eighties. Most of you, by the time 
you get to be my age, if you live to be my age, your life expectancy 
will probably be by then 90 or more. We're going to have to rethink this 
whole thing. But we have to do it with a view towards preserving the 
principles and the integrity of our society, binding us together across 
the generations and across the income divides.
    We can do this. President Roosevelt often called us to the spirit of 
bold, persistent experimentation. We will have to do that. But he also 
reminded us that our greatest challenges we can only meet as one Nation. 
And we must remember that. With our increasing diversity, in the way we 
work and live, in our racial and ethnic and other backgrounds, religious 
backgrounds, we still have to be, when it comes to treating people with 
dignity, in fulfilling our obligations to one another, one Nation.
    Acting today for the future is in some ways the oldest of American 
traditions. It's what Thomas Jefferson did when he purchased the 
Louisiana Territory and sent Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition. 
It's what Abraham Lincoln did when, at the height of the Civil War, he 
and the Congress took the time to establish a system of land grant 
colleges, which revolutionized the future of America. It's what we 
Americans did when, in the depths of the Depression, when people were 
only concerned about the moment, and 25 percent of the American people 
were out of work, our Congress and our President still took the time to 
establish a Social Security system that could only take flower and have 
full impact long after they were gone.
    That is what we do when we do best, what Professor Quigley called 
``future preference.'' What I prefer is a future in which my generation 
can retire, those who are not as fortunate as me can retire in dignity, 
but we can do it in a way that does not burden you and your ability to 
raise our grandchildren, because I believe the best days of this country 
lie ahead of us if we fulfill our responsibilities today for tomorrow.
    Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:53 a.m. in Gaston Hall. In his remarks, 
he referred to Father Leo J. O'Donovan, president, Georgetown 
University; former Congressman Timothy J. Penny, board member, Concord 
Coalition; John Rother, director of legislation and public policy, 
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP); and Mannone Butler, 
Georgetown Law School student, who introduced the President. A portion 
of these remarks could not be verified because the tape was incomplete.