Seniors, students make Santorum sweat

PITTSBURGH — The third-ranking Republican in the Senate, Pennsylvania’s Sen. Rick Santorum, took to the stump selling the privatization of Social Security Feb. 21, but he stumbled and slipped at a well-informed town hall meeting organized by his office at conservative-friendly Duquesne University.

Santorum, who has been running on Social Security privatization for 24 years, is crisscrossing the state that rejected President Bush at the polls twice.

A cross-section of the greater Pittsburgh community, from steelworkers, teachers and labor leaders to clergy to students to young professionals listened and paid close attention. A smug, off-hand reference to the cost of the Iraq invasion as something in the “other” category of Bush spending of workers’ dollars, drew loud boos and jeers.

“I forgot I was on a college campus,” grinned Santorum, drawing a “And, your point is?” silence. That’s when the drops of sweat started to appear on his forehead.

It took only one reference to the Republican Medicare prescription drug plan, due to kick in 2006, audience hoots and cries of “Lies!” for Santorum to back away.

Audience questions trapped the junior senator. Santorum tried to define Social Security as an investment program. Retired teacher and member of the Pennsylvania Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA) Ed Pace corrected him. “Social Security is a social insurance program, not an investment scheme,” said the veteran of many classrooms. “This whole show is based on guesses into the future, actuarial projections. Why are we tampering with success? There is a simple solution, just raise the cap.”

Applause supported Pace.

The cap he referred to is the limit on payments into the Social Security Trust Fund. Workers pay 6.2 percent of their earnings in Social Security taxes, FICA, and the company pays 6.2 percent. Once workers earn $90,000, neither they nor their employer pays FICA taxes. It is a system where retirees, surviving families and disabled people have received a check, every third day of the month no matter what.

Although he tried to demean the Social Security program, using the coded word “welfare,” Santorum had to admit that raising the cap might allow benefits to continue.

Recently, Bush said that raising the cap on Social Security to address the increased number of retirees is on the table.

“I don’t believe it,” said Marie Malagreca, retired steelworker and the regional director for ARA in Western Pennsylvania. “Based on what I heard Santorum talking about, it’s just another lie. They might use the money from lifting the cap to pay for their transition (from the current system to privatization), estimated to be a trillion dollars or more, who the hell knows what a trillion dollars is, but, no, I don’t they are serious about raising the cap to keep Social Security as we know it. They are out to destroy it and give our money we worked for to the corporations or to pay for the Iraq war.”

The other Bush proposal, with privatization still on the table, is to change the way Social Security benefits are calculated. Amy Chasanov of the Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed group monitoring the economy, charges that tinkering with the indexing, the formula for the amount of Social Security checks, would slash retired workers’ income by 70 percent and sentence an additional 7 million older Americans to poverty.

Currently, when workers retire, they receive 42 percent of their active paychecks, based on their wages. Bush wants to change that to basing the amount of Social Security checks on prices. That change in the formula adds up to only 17 percent of pre-retirement income, says Chasanov.

In Pittsburgh, Santorum packed up his slides, charts and graphs and headed to Johnstown, Pa. “If it was chilly in Pittsburgh when Santorum performed,” said Ruth Vila, retired steelworker and ARA member, “it was downright bitter cold here. The only people who clapped had money, I know ’em, both of them. But I’ve got to tell you that I am worried about the younger people.”

Even corporations, which have been funding the campaign to privatize Social Security, are getting cold feet. ARA and senior organizations have been picketing and conducting online protests of the brokerage firm, Edward Jones, based in St. Louis, for a month. The firm pulled out of the corporate coalition funding the campaign to privatize Social Security on Feb. 11.

Pfizer, the giant pharmaceutical corporation and a mover and shaker in the Alliance for Worker Retirement and Security — the big business anti-Social Security coalition supporting Bush — issued a statement that it would be neutral in the national debate on reforming Social Security.

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