Conversation Kills


“In a unique effort to attract college and graduate students to the growing discussion over Social Security’s future,” reads the press release, “four leading national youth organizations are offering generous prizes to the student team that best answers this question: How would you spend $100,000 to get America’s campuses talking about Social Security?”

It sounds like a great approach to one of today’s hottest political issues. Unfortunately, this particular press release was dated February 1998. Of the four youth organizations that sponsored the Social Security Challenge, three—Third Millennium, the 2030 Center, and FIRST—are no longer active.

Meanwhile, President Bush used his State of the Union address on February 2 to lay out more details of his Social Security privatization plan. He is promising no changes in benefits for retirees and near-retirees. No, the “ownership society” will begin with younger workers. Whatever the outcome of Bush’s efforts—unpredictable market returns, benefits sliced, an economy staggered by federal debt from “transition cost” borrowing of over $2 trillion—people who now have most of their working lives ahead of them will bear the brunt of it.

On the other hand, if no change is made to Social Security and Medicare, young adults face the specter of dramatically higher taxes, lower benefits, and lower earnings as the population ages. So where are our voices in the debate?

In contrast to the pre-election frenzy, with everyone from P. Diddy to World Wrestling Entertainment turning out the youth vote, there is little high-profile organizing—on campuses, online, or anywhere—over a policy question with a profound impact on the lives of young Americans.

Maybe anti-privatization forces on the left, traditional allies of youth, are put off by some polls indicating that there’s more support for private accounts among those under 30 than among their elders. Young adults are also more likely to think Social Security, in its present form, won’t last until they need it.

“We have a right that assumes the support of young people and a left that isn’t talking to young people,” says Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a progressive think tank in New York. In 1998, fresh out of college, she directed the Social Security Challenge, which staged intensive “deliberative discussions” of Social Security policy at 120 campuses across the country. Now she’s looking to spark debate again. “It would be a lost opportunity if the left didn’t engage young people in this conversation.”

Rock the Vote, the rock star of the youth politics world, plans to do just that. Last Thursday, they released a poll of 1000 under-40-year-olds,jointly with AARP and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. It turns out that 65 percent of younger workers actually oppose private accounts—when they are told reform will mean lower guaranteed benefits.

“We’re gonna do a whole campaign on this issue and selfishly protect the interests of young people,” says Hans Riemer, the nonpartisan organization’s political director. “This is about their parents moving back into their house after [the kids have] worked so hard to get out the door. This is about being able to afford Viagra when you’re getting old. If you start digging into the details on a lot of these plans, what you see is that they promise the moon and deliver a very painful bill. The private accounts are the icing on a disgusting cake.”

Riemer says the focus on Social Security is a logical expansion of Rock the Vote’s mission, which lately has been to get young adults to the polls in key elections. “We really are the AARP of our generation,” Riemer says. “We are opening the door to be the defender of young people’s policy interests. This is a great issue to do it on.”

There’s a catch. While his plan involves public service announcements, billboards, and an online push, Riemer admits that funding has been hard to come by. “If we can get some money together it’s gonna be really exciting,” he says. “It’ll be tough to get the money together, though.”

Jonathan Zaff, the president of 18to35, finds himself in a similar situation. His group, the only remaining Washington, D.C., policy and think tank dedicated to youth issues, supports reform and possibly private accounts, though not necessarily Bush’s plan. Right now, 18to35 wants to do its own poll exploring this demographic’s opinions about Social Security. Do the majority of twentysomethings support private accounts because they believe the program won’t be there for them anyway? Do recent graduates burdened with student loan and credit card debt welcome the responsibility of saving for their retirements? Zaff wants to know, and he’s getting a little frustrated.

“We want to at least get the pulse of young people, who are so essential to this debate,” Zaff says. “I don’t think there’s a lot of movement to necessarily fund the poll, to be honest. Do people truly, when it comes right down to it, care what young people have to say?” If so, it’s time to put up or shut up.