At colleges, Santorum touts Bush's Social Security plan

Posted: February 23, 2005

There is a generation gap on the subject of Social Security, and it was much in evidence yesterday as Sen. Rick Santorum brought his campaign for changing the system to the Philadelphia area.

At two stops, morning at Drexel University, afternoon at Widener University, the Pennsylvania Republican encountered skepticism and hostility as he voiced his support for the White House plan to allow creation of personal accounts using payroll taxes.

He was heckled by protesters, called a liar, and told that his views were unconscionable. Those sentiments ranged across the age spectrum.

But the bulk of the positive reaction he did receive came from young people, some of whom say they think they will get a raw deal from Social Security unless an overhaul is made.

At Widener, junior Chris Boggs, 21, told Santorum that he found the idea of personal accounts "very, very exciting. I want the chance to take my money and my retirement into my own hands. I want to have a say in where it goes."

This week, across the nation and the region, the conversation over President Bush's plan to reshape Social Security is being joined. Congress is out of session, and senators and representatives are out among the voters, talking and listening.

Where they're going tells a tale. Democrats are seeking out older Americans. Sen. Jon Corzine (D., N.J.) is coming to Cherry Hill tomorrow in conjunction with the AARP; Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.) had a session with elderly voters Monday at a Jewish community center in Northeast Philadelphia.

Santorum is searching for the young and persuadable. Of the 10 town hall meetings on his schedule this week, all devoted to Social Security, eight were set for college and university campuses.

"It's their decision," Santorum said at Drexel, referring to the young. "This is a program for younger workers. I think older people should be talking to their children and grandchildren about what they want."

Bush has said that his proposal, which allows individuals to put up to 4 percentage points of their payroll taxes into accounts, would not affect anyone born before 1950.

"Social Security is telling younger workers that you're going to get your money back with no return, and we can't even make good on that promise," said the senator, who chairs the Finance Committee's subcommittee on the topic. "I don't know of anyone who would willingly make that investment."

Pedro Rodriguez, 51, executive director of Philadelphia's Action Alliance of Senior Citizens, said that what Santorum is doing is transparent.

"He's trying to do a snow job on younger people, to create a divide between the older generation and the younger generation," Rodriguez said. "He says this money is for you, and not for anybody else."

Many of the senior citizens who came out to hear Schwartz on Monday echoed that sentiment.

"Social Security isn't supposed to be a savings plan; it's social insurance," Milton Shapiro, 92, told the congresswoman. "People already have IRAs and 401(k)s. What more do they need to save? I think Bush wants to sell out to Wall Street."

Schwartz said Monday that she had yet to have a single constituent, old or young, tell her that the idea of personal accounts is one she ought to support. Along with virtually every other Democrat in Congress, she opposes the Bush proposal.

At Drexel, where about 300 people turned out, Santorum was joined by Deputy Social Security Commissioner James B. Lockhart, who stressed his desire to have the retirement system repaired sooner rather than later.

Lockhart, a political appointee, was asked by reporters if his appearance indicated that he was acting as an advocate for personal accounts.

"It's our duty at the Social Security Administration to help the American people understand the problem. . . . ," Lockhart said. "I think personal accounts, if constructed properly, would be one way to fix Social Security."

He added that he had volunteered to participate in Democratic events as well but that his offer had yet to be accepted.

The overall tenor of Santorum's meetings yesterday was summed up by an exchange that occurred at Drexel.

Santorum asked the audience what would happen in 2008. The response he wanted was that the oldest baby boomers would turn 62 and be eligible for early retirement.

What he got instead, shouted out by an unfriendly voice, was: "George Bush will leave office!"

Actually, that's scheduled for 2009. But many in the crowd cheered anyway.

Contact staff writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.

Coming Social Security events

At 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D., N.J.) will host a town meeting of the AARP at the Cherry Hill Community Center, 820 Mercer St., Cherry Hill.

At 1:30 p.m. Friday, Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) will hold a forum on the future of Social Security at Ann's Choice Fireside Restaurant, 10000 Ann's Choice Way, Warminster, near Street Road and Johnsville Boulevard.

Online: Read Larry Eichel's series at http://go.philly.com/socialsecurity.

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