Summit Offers Insight into US Values MORALITY OF SOCIAL SECURITY

Article excerpt

There are times in society when a policy question carries such profound moral implications, all the key players are forced to stop and become philosophers for a moment.

That is what's happening in the debate over the future of Social Security.

Today and tomorrow, the White House will convene a long-planned conference on the nation's social insurance system. Not only will the participants focus on the financial nuts and bolts of privatization and other options for the system, they will also raise underlying issues of what's in the best interests of society - what's the moral thing to do. Looking over the 63 years since the launch of Social Security - one of the pillars of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal - defenders of the current approach argue that its past successes warrant as little change as possible. The financial standing of the elderly, people with disabilities, and families who have lost one or both parents has improved dramatically. Among older Americans, poverty fell from one-third of the age group to about 11 percent. This sense that "we're all in this together," and that each of us, through our payroll taxes, is contributing to the greater good of society, fosters a sense of communal well-being among Americans, say proponents of modest change. "The beauty of Social Security is that it represents a shared commitment of society as a whole to meet a need that isn't well met by families on their own," said Business Week magazine. No one doubts the current system needs to be repaired. Under the latest projections, which are tied to demographic changes, Social Security will begin to run short of funds in 2032. Aside from the issue of future insolvency, the system is rife with moral failings, say privatization's advocates. Part of the problem lies in Social Security's origins: The retirement program was sold to the public not as a welfare system but as an investment by workers, who would put their money in and get it out later. Impact on today's youths Over time, the return on that investment has shrunk. Today's young workers, under the current setup, could expect either a zero or a negative rate of return on the money they're putting in - an immoral outcome for the young, say those who would privatize. As the young become more aware of the raw deal that's in store, intergenerational tensions could grow. …