Barrett gets community pulse on Social Security

Following through on President George W. Bush’s call to take Republican plans for Social Security reform to the people during the Easter recess, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett held a discussion Wednesday at Anderson College, revealing widespread anxiety about the issue among baby boomers and retirees.

The second-term congressman refused to rule out a range of measures — including raising Social Security taxes or cutting benefits — that could be “part of some of the solution,” along with the president’s plan to allow workers to put some of their Social Security taxes into voluntary private accounts.

At the same time, Rep. Barrett, R-Westminster, offered reassurance that the government would not change anything for those nearing retirement.

Rep. Barrett said he favored personal accounts because, unlike the current system, all money paid into them would belong to workers.

“It you take that money and put it into a personal retirement account it has your name on it,” he said in a 90-minute presentation, aided by poster boards, handouts and experts from the Social Security Administration and the right-wing think tank FreedomWorks. “If we set up a lock box, it doesn’t matter?we still have the keys.”

To keep current benefits intact, Social Security tax rates would have to rise to 18.7 percent from 12.8 percent by 2080, according to government figures.

If taxes stayed the same, benefits would have to be cut by a third over the same period.

The workshop was one of 12 held this week in the Third Congressional District stretching from Oconee to Aiken County along the Savannah River.

Most of the concerns from the audience of about 40 revolved around how the personal accounts would affect the stock market, and how the government would pay the estimated $2 trillion in transition costs to the plan.

Bruce Weeks worried about political divisiveness over personal accounts.

“Why are you supporting this when half the nation wants it off the table?” he asked.

Some lone voices also worried about whether the government should focus on the cost of health care, not living expenses, in retirement or whether the government should do more to emphasize that Social Security was intended to supplement, not replace, individual retirement savings.

“If we just sit on our tail and look to Social Security to save us, it won’t work,” said Williamston resident John Brannon, a 77-year-old retirement planner.

Said 45-year-old David McCowan: “It was supposed to stop people from starving to death. I don’t know why we can’t go back to that system.’’

Rep. Barrett said personal accounts modeled on the government Thrift Savings Plan — offering workers an option to invest in one of five diversified index funds — would minimize government interference in the market.

But he didn’t have an answer on how the transition costs would be handled.

“I’m not selling any specific plan. These are informational meetings,” he said. “When we come up with a plan, I’ll come back and sell it to you.”

Nicholas Charalambous can be reached at (864) 260-1256 or by e-mail at

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