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Young workers have little faith in system

SUNDAY, FEB. 6, 2005

To Teairah Walters, Social Security is that sucking sound draining money from her paycheck.

The 18-year-old works full time at Walgreens in Post Falls. She’s also a pre-med student at North Idaho College. After rent and tuition, money for basics – like food and shampoo – is scarce.

“We were just discussing Social Security the other day, because we pay a lot into it,” Walters said. “By the time we get old enough to collect our Social Security, it will be gone.”

Her two friends nodded. The young women doubt that Social Security, a 70-year-old cornerstone of New Deal politics, will be around to pay dividends in their old age.

Still, like young Americans nationwide, they were split Friday on President Bush’s proposed personal investment accounts. Under the plan, workers would be able to divert as much as two-thirds of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts. The plan would be voluntary. If workers chose to participate, their guaranteed benefits would be reduced.

Bush’s proposal is a reaction to anticipated shortfalls. Social Security is expected to start losing money in 2018 or 2020, according to differing estimates from Social Security trustees and Congress’ budget analysts. It’s expected to be unable to provide full benefits beginning in 2042 or 2052.

Heather Dorrell, 18, likes the idea of personal investment accounts. She calls it a “guarantee to ourselves.”

“I hear my parents talking about Social Security,” said Dorrell, a journalism student. “It’s interesting to think it will be way different when I get it.”

Walters isn’t so sure about Bush’s plan. She wonders if workers would be disciplined enough to invest.

A recent Harris Poll found that 58 percent of adults support, or are somewhat supportive, of the White House proposal to allow personal investment accounts.

People under 30 are the most enthusiastic. Sixty-one percent of workers younger than 30 approve of the plan, according to an independent poll commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

“It’s our money,” said Josh Skipper, a 21-year-old accounting student at Gonzaga University. “Why can’t we do what we want with it?”

Elizabeth Chapman, 34, agreed.

“I would love to be able to invest my money. I think I could get a better return on it,” Chapman, who works in retail, said during the lunch hour in downtown Spokane last week.

She isn’t counting on a Social Security check when she retires. “I’m saving aggressively,” said Chapman, who contributes to a 401(k) plan.

Don Delcambre has supported personal Social Security accounts for years.

“When the government gets ahold of programs, they do not run them as efficiently as they could,” said Delcambre, a 41-year-old carpenter who has returned to school and wants to be a teacher.

“I’m not counting on Social Security to be around for me,” he said. “Not with the way the government’s handling the national debt.”

Others were skeptical of Bush’s plans.

“There’s debate over whether (Social Security) is screwed up to begin with, or whether this is typical of this administration to blow things out of proportion, like” – cough, cough – “weapons of mass destruction,” said Brian Fountaine, a 34-year-old copywriter who was on his lunch break last week in downtown Spokane.

Fountaine watched Bush unveil the proposal during last week’s State of the Union address.

“Anyone 55 and over has nothing to worry about. Well, that means I probably do,” he said. “It’s hard to trust this administration on fiscal policy.”

His friend, 35-year-old Tola Rogalski, also expressed wariness.

“The things that happen in office now will benefit the rich and not the middle class or the working class,” said Rogalski, a 35-year-old vice president at WhiteRunkle, a Spokane advertising firm.

He’s torn on Bush’s proposal. “Part of me says, that sucks,” Rogalski said. “But part of me says you can’t rely on government to take care of you.”

That’s Trevor Skelton’s line.

The 21-year-old president of Gonzaga’s Campus Libertarians thinks privatization of Social Security should go even further. He’d like unlimited control over his investment choices.

“I would feel much safer managing my own money,” Skelton said. “When you do your own work, it’s that much more rewarding.”

Skelton, a junior studying civil engineering, said he plans to open an individual retirement account as soon as he gets a job. “I’ve always been one to really stress individualism,” he said, “and stemming from that, a sense of getting what you work for, reaping what you sow.”

Ryan Langrill, who also is a Libertarian, agrees with Skelton’s philosophy. Workers should be able to invest their Social Security payroll taxes in more stocks, even if they are higher risk, said Langrill, a 19-year-old accounting student.

But Social Security reform should occur in increments, the two students said.

“The biggest problem with getting rid of the program (as it exists now) is all the people who’ve contributed,” Langrill said. “They obviously deserve their benefits.”

However Social Security changes, the program should retain its role as a safety net in society, said Andrew Pereira, a 20-year-old student at North Idaho College. Pereira’s father retired early because of a disability. Social Security payments helped support his family.

Most college students are caught up in the present, Langrill said. Retirement and collecting Social Security benefits seem a long way off.

“Most of us aren’t sure what we’re majoring in,” he said.


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