Confusion persists, even among backers

For Immediate Release:

March 22, 2005

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By Judy Keen

USA TODAY

TUCSON — President Bush has been talking about Social Security for weeks, but even some of his supporters have misconceptions and qualms about his plan to overhaul the retirement system.
 
  President George W. Bush spoke with a group of senior citizens about his ideas on Social Security reform in Tuscon, AZ, Monday. 
By Tim Sloan, Getty Images via AP

Interviews with people who came to hear him at the convention center here Monday revealed confusion about eligibility for the personal investment accounts that are the centerpiece of his plan. There were questions about how investments would be managed and doubts that they would pay off.

Bush wants to allow workers born after 1949 to divert part of their withholding taxes into government-run accounts that invest in stocks and bonds. He says he's open to other ideas to ensure Social Security's solvency, including raising the retirement age, increasing the amount of income subject to the tax and changing the way benefits are calculated.

When he makes a speech Tuesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico will be the 17th state he has visited to talk about Social Security.

Bush isn't the only one talking about his proposal. It's been criticized by Democrats and by groups such as the AARP, which is running television ads asking, "Why dismantle Social Security when it can be fixed with just a few moderate changes?"

Bush, Vice President Cheney and other officials are making "60 stops in 60 days," as their campaign says, to promote private accounts across the country. "It doesn't matter how long it takes," Bush said. "I'm going to work as hard as I can to tell the people, these are the facts."

Interviews with 15 people from Tucson found that his message hasn't reached everyone:

•Administrative assistant Mary McAllen, 51, said she's glad that people 50 and up wouldn't be affected by Bush's plan. Actually, she could be — the cutoff is people who are 55 or older.

•Karen Grainger, 50, a substitute teacher, said she thought people would have to hire brokers to manage their accounts. But Bush's idea would have them choose from investment packages that would be set and run by the government. "I'm not over 55, so it makes me a little nervous," Grainger says.

•Bill Hughes, 47, who works for a defense contractor, said he thought workers who chose to invest in private accounts would be guaranteed a certain rate of return. They wouldn't.

As usual, everyone in the audience had tickets that were distributed by the local Republican Party and business groups. The system is meant to surround Bush with supporters, but Tim Sultan, 34, a business consultant who once ran for Congress as a Democrat, was there.

Sultan wants changes in Social Security but rejects Bush's assertion that it's in crisis. He said he worries that the cost of setting up the private accounts would be too high. "My greatest fear," he said, "is that the administration wants to dismantle Social Security."

Some people aren't sure what should be done to ensure the solvency of Social Security, but they trust Bush to do it. "We don't necessarily have the perfect plan," said Dolly Pettet, 58. "But most of his plans are very right-on." Her husband, Don Pettet, 72, who is retired from Miller Brewing, said Bush deserves credit for "having the courage to open the dialogue."

"I'm counting on him to make the right decision," said Karina Jaime, 31, a mother of two. "

Others knew enough about the private accounts to know they liked the idea. "We ought to allow people to make their own decisions," said Tony Terry Jr., 51, a producer at a local theater. His father, Tony Terry Sr., 76, said Franklin Roosevelt, who created Social Security in 1935, "intended that there would be separate, private savings. Social Security wasn't meant to be your only retirement income."

Bush has said personal accounts alone won't keep Social Security in the black, but he hasn't endorsed other steps. Some in his audience had their own ideas about cost-saving measures, including adding a penny to sales taxes nationally, raising the retirement age and cutting federal funding of programs such as those that subsidize the arts.