[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[April 7, 1998]
[Pages 511-514]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to a National Forum on Social Security in Kansas City, Missouri
April 7, 1998

    Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning. Thank you, 
Governor Carnahan, for your leadership on so 
many areas and your friendship. I'd like to thank the leaders of this 
fine institution for welcoming us here and for the mission they perform 
every day. I thank Senators Kerrey and 
Santorum for their concern--longstanding--for 
Social Security reform and their presence here, and Representatives 
Hulshof and Pomeroy, who are participating in the program, and Representative 
McCarthy and also Representative David 
Dreier from California, who is a native of 
Kansas City, who are here.
    I thank the members of our administration who have come, who will be 
participating: the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, 
Frank Raines; the Deputy Secretary of the 
Treasury, Larry Summers; the Director of 
the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling; 
and the Administrator of Social Security, Ken Apfel.
    Attorney General Nixon, Treasurer 
Graeber, Insurance Commissioner 
Sebelius, thank you all for being here. 
Mayor Cleaver, thank you for hosting us. 
I don't know if Mayor Marinovich is here or 
not, but if she is, hello. [Laughter]
    I'd also like to thank the leaders of the AARP, including Horace Deets, and the leaders of the Concord 
Coalition, including Martha Phillips, for 
their hosting of this forum. The AARP has long

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been a leading voice for the elderly, the Concord Coalition long a 
leading voice for fiscal responsibility over the long run, and their 
willingness to work together is very important. I'd also like to thank 
the Speaker of the House, the Senate majority 
leader, and the House and Senate Democratic leaders for nominating and being represented here today by the 
Members of Congress who are on the program.
    As the Governor said, this is a good time for America and a time of 
great hope. Our economy is the strongest in a generation. Many of our 
social problems are on the mend. Our leadership in the world is 
unrivaled. Within the next year, we will have a balanced budget. And 
where once there were deficits projected as far as the eye can see, we 
now have projected surpluses as far as the eye can see, a trillion 
dollars' worth over the next decade.
    But this sunlit moment is not a time to rest. Instead, it is a rare 
opportunity to prepare our Nation for the challenges and the 
opportunities of the 21st century, or in the words of the old saying, to 
fix the roof while the sun is shining. In the coming century, the aging 
of our society will present both great challenges and great 
opportunities. I hope to live to be one of those people and so, to me, 
it's a high-class problem.
    But because a higher percentage of our people will be both older and 
retired, perhaps our greatest opportunity and our greatest obligation at 
this moment is to save Social Security. In the State of the Union 
Address, I called on Congress to set aside every penny of any surplus 
until we had dealt with Social Security first. Both parties in both 
Chambers of Congress have joined in this call. That is the good news.
    Today we turn to the business at hand, building public awareness of 
the nature and scope of the problem and building public consensus for 
the best changes. Clearly, we will strengthen Social Security and reform 
it only if we reach across lines of party, philosophy, and generation. 
And that is one reason for the broad representation of age groups in 
this audience today. We have to have open minds and generous spirits. 
And we all have to be willing to listen and to learn.
    For too long, politicians have called Social Security the ``third 
rail'' of American politics. That's Washington language for ``it's above 
serious debate.'' This year we must prove them wrong. This conference, 
with its wide participation, is a good start. On the political calendar, 
1998 is an election year. But on the Social Security calendar, we must 
resolve to make it an education year, when we come to grips with the 
problems of the system and come together to find the answers.
    This issue is complicated, so we need the best ideas, whatever their 
source. The issue is controversial, so we have to have a national 
consensus on both the nature of the problem and the direction we must 
    That's why I've asked all the Members of Congress to also host 
townhall meetings in their own districts. I'll be talking with several 
of them by satellite later today, and we'll hold more additional forums 
like this one around the country. In December there will be a White 
House Conference on Social Security. In January I intend to convene the 
leaders of Congress to draft a plan to save it. With this effort, we can 
forge a national consensus, and we must.
    For 60 years, Social Security has meant more than an ID number on a 
tax form, more than even a monthly check in the mail. It reflects our 
deepest values, the duties we owe to our parents, to each other, to our 
children and grandchildren, to those whom misfortune strikes, to our 
ideals as one America.
    Missouri's native son, Mark Twain, once said, ``I've come loaded 
with statistics, for I've noticed a man can't prove anything without 
statistics.'' So I thought we would begin today with a few statistics. 
Today, as the first chart shows, 44 million Americans depend upon Social 
Security, and for two-thirds of our senior citizens, it is the main 
source of income. For 18 percent of our seniors, it is the only source 
of income.
    But Social Security is more than just a retirement program. Today 
you can see that more than one in three of the beneficiaries are not 
retirees; they are children and spouses of working people who die in 
their prime; they are men and women who become disabled, or their 
    So Social Security is also a life insurance policy and a disability 
policy, as well as a rock-solid guarantee of support in old age. That is 
why we have to act with care as we make needed repairs to the program 
occasioned by the huge growth in retirees.
    Since its enactment over 60 years ago, Social Security has changed 
the face of America. When President Roosevelt signed the bill creating 
the Social Security system, most seniors in America

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were poor. A typical elderly person sent a letter to FDR begging him to 
eliminate ``the stark terror of penniless old age.'' Since then, the 
elderly poverty rate has dropped sharply. You can look here and see that 
in 1959 the poverty rate was over 35 percent for retirees. In 1979 it 
had dropped to 15.2 percent. In 1996 the poverty rate is down below 11 
    Now, there's something else I want to say about this. Even though 
most seniors need other sources of income in addition to Social Security 
to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, if Social Security did not exist 
today, half of all American retirees would be living in poverty--60 
percent of all women. Fifteen million American seniors have been lifted 
out of poverty through the Social Security system.
    Today the system is sound, but the demographic crisis looming is 
clear. The baby boomers, 76 million of us, are now looking ahead to 
their retirement. And people, clearly, are living longer, so that by 
2030, there will be twice as many elderly as there are today.
    All these trends will impose heavy strains on the system. Let's look 
at the next chart here. You can see that in 1960--wasn't so long ago--
there were over five people working for every person drawing Social 
Security. In 1997, last year, there were over three people--3.3 people--
working for every person drawing. But by 2030, because of the increasing 
average age, if present birthrates and immigration rates and retirement 
rates continue, there will be only two people working for every person 
drawing Social Security.
    Now, here's the bottom line: The Social Security Trust Fund is 
sufficient to pay all the obligations of Social Security--both 
retirement and disability--until 2029, after which it will no longer 
cover those obligations. Payroll contributions will only be enough to 
cover 75 cents on the dollar of current benefits.
    Now, if we act now, we can ensure strong retirement benefits for the 
baby boom generation without placing an undue burden on our children and 
grandchildren. And we can do it, if we act now, with changes that will 
be far simpler and easier than if we wait until the problem is closer at 
hand. For example, $100 billion of the budget surplus, if used for 
Social Security, would add a year or more to the solvency of the Trust 
Fund with no other changes being made. Other changes which could be made 
can be phased in over time, and keep in mind, small changes decided on 
now can have huge impacts 30 years from now.
    So how should we judge the proposals to change the Social Security 
system? Here are principles that I believe we should follow, and they're 
on the next chart here. I believe, first of all, we have to reform 
Social Security in a way that strengthens and protects a guarantee for 
the 21st century. We should not abandon a basic program that has been 
one of the greatest successes in our country's history.
    Second, we should maintain universality and fairness. For half a 
century, this has been a progressive guarantee for citizens; we have to 
keep it that way. It was not until 1985 that the poverty rate among 
seniors was lower than the poverty rate for the population of America as 
a whole. It is an astonishing achievement of our society that it is now 
so much lower, and we should not give it up.
    Third, Social Security must provide a benefit that people can count 
on. Regardless of the ups and downs of the economy or the financial 
markets, we have to provide a solid and dependable foundation of 
retirement security.
    Fourth, Social Security--continue to provide financial security for 
disabled and low income beneficiaries. We can never forget the one in 
three Social Security beneficiaries who are not retirees.
    And fifth, anything we do to strengthen Social Security now must 
maintain our hard-won fiscal discipline. It is the source of much of the 
prosperity we enjoy today.
    Now, these are the principles that will guide me as we work to forge 
a consensus. I hope they're ones that all of you can also embrace. This 
national effort will call on the best of our people. It will require us 
to rise above partisanship. It will require us to plan for the future, 
to consider new ideas, to engage in what President Roosevelt once called 
``bold, persistent experimentation.'' It will remind us that there are 
some challenges that we can only meet as one nation acting through our 
National Government, just as there are others we can better meet as 
individuals, families, communities.
    This is also a challenge for every generation. To the older 
Americans here today, let me say, you have nothing to worry about. For 
you, Social Security is as strong as ever.
    To the younger people here today who may believe that you will never 
see a Social Security check--indeed, I saw a poll which purported

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to be serious that said that Americans in their twenties thought it was 
more likely they would see a UFO than that they would ever draw Social 
Security. [Laughter] That skepticism may have been well founded in the 
past, but just as we put our fiscal house in order, we can and must put 
Social Security in order.
    And above all, to my fellow baby boomers, let me say that none of us 
wants our own retirement to be a burden to our children and to their 
efforts to raise our grandchildren. It would be unconscionable if we 
failed to act, and act now, as one nation renewing the ties that bind us 
across the generations.
    Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:25 a.m. in the gymnasium at Penn Valley 
Community College. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Mel Carnahan of 
Missouri; Jay Nixon, Missouri State attorney general; Clyde D. Graeber, 
Kansas State treasurer; Kathleen Sebelius, Kansas State insurance 
commissioner; Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II of Kansas City, MO; Mayor Carol 
Marinovich of Kansas City, KS; Horace B. Deets, executive director, 
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP); and Martha Phillips, 
executive director, Concord Coalition. The forum was sponsored by the 
AARP and Concord Coalition.