Decline of 'Safety Net' Mentality? ; Candidates' Plans to Alter the US Retirement System Show How Attitudes Are Changing

Article excerpt

After decades of being the sole guarantor of retirement security for millions of Americans, the federal government seems poised to shift some of this weighty responsibility onto individuals - and the free market.

Such a move - now backed in concept by both presidential contenders - would fundamentally alter the way Americans prepare to retire and, more broadly, how government cares for its elders.

Democratic candidate Al Gore, the latest to propose alterations to the 60-year-old Social Security framework, unveiled a plan June 20 that encourages retirement savings - and allows tax-free stock- market investment. With it, he joins Republican standard-bearer George W. Bush in supporting big changes in the retirement safety net.

Behind the shift, observers say, is an Internet-age trend toward individual empowerment - and away from reliance on Uncle Sam. It's evident at all levels of government, in everything from welfare reform to school-choice vouchers. Some call it the "choice revolution."

"This is a major fork in the road for American public policy," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Although there won't be "fire hoses or police dogs in the streets," he says, the impact of Social Security reform on society could be as profound as that of the civil rights movement.

Tinkering so dramatically with the New Deal-era system was once thought to be politically impossible. But the tectonics of American politics have shifted to enable such reform.

For one thing, the number of Americans raised during the Great Depression is shrinking - along with their political influence. They're the only demographic group that, as a whole, opposes big changes to Social Security.

But in this year's election, baby boomers and Generation Xers are the sought-after segment of the electorate, and many of them favor change. These younger generations are better educated and more affluent, and they are not haunted by memories of severe economic times.

The big unknown, though, is whether they are ready to start making major changes to Social Security, as some say the Bush plan would eventually require. Or do they prefer to keep the current system in place, as Gore's plan professes to do, so long as they get more autonomy over some retirement funds?

A 30-year transformation

The shift in America's psyche, though, has its roots in the political scandals and then the energy crisis of the 1970s. Since then, Americans as a whole have vested less and less faith in government - including in its role as caretaker, says Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation here.

Consequently, "there's been a diffusion of power - one that's best symbolized by the Internet," he says. The Internet generations are accustomed to being empowered by information, he says, and now they want to be empowered by government programs. "The future is all about individual access to information and control over one's life. …