Former Sen. Warren Rudman expected some opposition to his proposals about reforming Social Security, but not the barrage of criticism he encountered last week at UJA-Federation headquarters in Manhattan.
Just minutes into his address to agency directors and community members, scattered shouts of "No, no" were heard when Rudman suggested what he called "affluence testing" to limit Social Security payments to the wealthy. The New Hampshire Republican said everyone should get back what he or she put into the system, plus interest, but that the wealthy should collect no more.
"I have a problem with that," said the first man to rise during the question-and-answer period. He said "working-class people have saved all their lives," investing in their home and the stock market, and they should not be penalized by losing Social Security benefits.
Another member of the audience, Leo Werner, 78, of Brooklyn, lashed out at the Concord Coalition, a conservative think tank and advocacy group Rudman founded. Werner charged that the group "is the worst reactionary, ultra-right organization. …There is nothing wrong with Social Security; it’s not broken."
Quoting an article from the Economic Policy Institute he obtained from meetings of the Jewish Association for Service for the Aged’s Institute for Senior Action, Werner said Social Security would continue to thrive for 30 years and, with a "minor adjustment," for 70 years. He argued that what Rudman had advocated was a "total scam on the people."
Rudman replied that the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis has been "discredited." Other studies, he said, have concluded that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money in another 30 years as more and more Americans retire.
But Deborah Grayson Riegel, project director of the Institute for Senior Action, rose to argue that Social Security is an "entitlement: a secure, guaranteed benefit" that must not be denied the wealthy. If it were, Riegel said, she feared "intergenerational" warfare.Rudman struck another nerve when he suggested changing the retirement age. Four years ago Congress raised the age from 65 to 68 for those born in 1960 or later, but Rudman said the law should cover those born even earlier. He did not offer a date, however.
The ex-lawmaker said later that he was caught by surprise by "those who came with a cause." But he repeated that most of those who have studied the situation believe that unless Social Security is adjusted in 15 years, "there will be real intergenerational combat."
"If you want to play ostrich and put your head in the sand, you will end up with a crisis the likes of which this country has never seen," he warned.
Rudman did find agreement when he spoke out against President Bill Clintonís proposal to invest a portion of the Social Security Trust Fund in the stock market. Although private and municipal pension funds have profited from such moves, Rudman said their investments were minuscule compared to the tens of millions in Social Security money that would be invested.
"I don’t know what that would do," he said, acknowledging that "young people say it’s unfair to invest the money in Treasury notes paying 3 percent" when stock market returns might be double that.