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Debate heated during Social Security forum

Some participants worried about tampering with a 70-year-old program that has provided security for millions of people. Others said they and their families would be better off if they were allowed to privately invest at least some of the money they now contribute to Social Security.

Attendance at Congressman Ron Kind's Tuesday morning forum on Social Security went beyond standing-room-only as late-arriving listeners crowded outside the door attempting to hear the exchange. An estimated 200 people attended the meeting at the River Falls Public Library.

Kind had held two public sessions on Social Security Monday and had a fourth set for Tuesday afternoon in Eau Claire.

President George W. Bush has identified Social Security reform as a top goal for his administration. He is apparently leaning toward a proposal by his Commission to Strengthen Social Security that would allow workers under age 55 to divert a small part of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts.

"Naturally it's easy to fix a roof while the sun is shining," said Kind. But he insisted that radical reform is not the answer.

The president's budget office figures the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money in 2042, said Kind. "We can make some adjustments before it's too late."

Kind said the national government has played a "shell game," raiding the Social Security Trust Fund for other purposes. He said he favors legislation that would take Social Security out of the federal budget.

Diane Lifsey, legislative representative for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said her organization objects to diverting Social Security contributions to private accounts.

"We feel by doing this, it would dismantle Social Security as we know it today," said Lifsey.

A third of Social Security payments are paid to people with disabilities or as survivors' benefits to households that have lost a breadwinner. Diverting contributions would cut those benefits, said Lifsey.

"We think diverting money to private accounts would make Social Security's problems worse," she said.

President Franklin Roosevelt set up Social Security as a safety net, said local resident Marvin Nelson.

"I would like to see it remain a safety net," he said. "If you want to save more, call your broker."

"This is not rocket science," said John Shepherd, a retired UW-River Falls physics professor, of the problem. "You put money in. You take money out."

If more money is taken out than is put in, the fund goes down, said Shepherd. He said there are three ways to keep the program solvent: put more money in by increasing fees; take less out by reducing benefits; or dump in more money by borrowing.

"You don't fix it by diverting some of the input into another pan," said Shepherd. He said plans to divert some of Social Security tax money to private accounts are "a lot of smoke and mirrors."

A woman, who did not give her name, said she has been paying into Social Security for 24 years, and will never be able to hand that money down to her children.

If Social Security were privatized, people would invest their money and leave it to their children when they die, said the woman. "Whereas the other way, the money just disappears."

"It's like you're not trusting me with my own money," she said.

But if a worker is injured or dies young, benefits are paid out whether they've been earned or not, replied Kind.

"I just don't think that it's the government's job to take care of us," insisted the woman. "I should take care of my mother, and my daughter will take care of me."

A 63-year-old Spring Valley resident said his mother depended on Social Security to help support the family after her husband died.

The man said he took early retirement and gets by because he lives frugally.

"I'm OK with that. That's what I expect," said the man. "I want that for my kids."

"This is a system that has worked well," he said. "It can work well."

A woman who receives Social Security disability payments said she is concerned about having her income cut.

Under some reform plans, disability benefits would be cut by 50 percent, said Lifsey.

Social Security disability benefits are being paid to some people who shouldn't get them, said Willard Schultz, Hudson.

He said he knows drug addicts who take the position: "If you're dumb enough to give us Social Security benefits, we'll take them."

"In those cases, I think it was too easy to get on Social Security," said Shultz.

There is a simple solution to Social Security funding, said Phyllis Goldin, River Falls. She said Congressman Martin Sabo figures that increasing slightly the U.S. Treasury bond interest rate paid on loans from Social Security would provide the money needed to keep the fund solvent.

"We hear Social Security changes discussed as if that is the issue," complained Wanda Brown, River Falls.

"We're being lied to by the president once again," said Brown. She said the people who would benefit most from Bush's plan are those who work in the financial services industry.

A factor that is not being considered is the benefit Social Security spending has for the economy, said Gene Meier, Prescott.

"The senior citizens that are on Social Security are not saving that money, they're spending it," he said.

"I remember the poor farm. Do we want to go back to that?" asked Meier, recalling the years before Social Security.

He said he likes going into restaurants and seeing that senior citizens can afford to eat out.

"My mom and dad could not do that because there was no Social Security for them," said Meier.

"It's voluntary. It's a small piece of what you're looking at," said Charles Struemke, town of Troy, of proposals to let people invest some of their Social Security contributions in mutual funds.

"Your benefits are not going to be hurt," he assured retirees.