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
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
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
"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
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
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. …