As we stand on the edge of a new century, I believe it is clear that the current Social Security debate is really about vision -- and about our responsibility to the future.
For the past six decades, Social Security has provided workers with a sense of "future" expectation. They have known that after a lifetime of work, they could count on this program to provide a reliable source of income when they retire. And, today, Social Security retirement benefits are the majority of income for almost 2/3 of all older Americans. For a third of older Americans, Social Security is virtually their only income.
As invaluable as Social Security has been in the 20th century, however, it will be even more so in the next century.
The reason is our changing demographics. America is an aging nation. More Americans are old than ever before -- and 76 million baby boomers are now in middle-age and will begin to retire around 2010. Our older population will more than double in t he next 30 years, and we must find a way to provide for their retirement without unduly burdening succeeding generations.
If no action is taken, the Social Security trust funds, which are today building large reserves, will be exhausted in 2034. At that time, tax revenues would be able to pay only a little less than three-fourths of benefit obligations.
Today, thanks to the economic discipline of the last few years, we have a remarkable window of opportunity to address the long-term, generational challenges we face. It is a window of opportunity that could not have been imagined just a few short year s ago. Since the early years of this decade, we have moved from large federal budget deficits to budget surpluses. And the surpluses are projected for a generation into the future.
In his State of the Union address, President Clinton reminded Americans that we are in a time when "the promise of our future is limitless," but he also cautioned that "how we fare as a nation far into the 21st century depends on what we do as a nation today."
The American people understand the problem that the Social Security program faces, and the need to act now. During a year-long national dialogue held in cities and towns across the country, they have made clear that Social Security is their top domes tic issue. They understand that we should act prudently, that we should set aside current resources to meet future obligations -- and that we should make this our first priority.
The reason is our responsibility to the future.
JFK once said that "We all cherish our children's future." We shouldn't waste the opportunity that we have created to ensure that their future includes the economic security that the program has provided to past generations.
And we shouldn't pass the responsibility for resolving the issue down to them, when the problems would be greater, and the solutions more difficult.
Anyone who has studied the history of the Social Security program knows that it was created partly out of a recognition of collective responsibility and mutual obligation that Americans owed to each other. Today, if we are to strengthen and preserve the program, we also need to recognize the mutual obligation that extends between generations of Americans -- grandparents, parents, and grandchildren.
After his State of the Union Address, President Clinton encouraged people to get involved in this vital issue. He said he welcomed the thoughts and ideas of all Americans. This web conference is one way in which you can participate in a discussion a bout the future of Social Security. Share your concerns and opinions about Social Security reform, and the need to act now, in good economic times, to ensure that we can all count on this program in the coming century.