George W. Bush photo

Remarks in a Discussion on Strengthening Social Security in Memphis, Tennessee

March 11, 2005

The President. Gosh, thanks for the warm welcome. It's great to be here in Memphis, Tennessee. What a fabulous city you've got. One of our panelists here was saying that he got up at 4:30 a.m. this morning, trying to prepare some remarks for today, some interesting thoughts about Social Security. And I said, "I'm glad it wasn't you I heard at 4:30." Evidently there's a basketball tournament here? [Laughter] Some of the victorious fans were pleased with the results yesterday.

But I'm honored to be here. Memphis is a fabulous place. I wish Laura were with me today. She's doing great, by the way. She's obviously a patient woman to be married to me. [Laughter] She's a wonderful mom, a fantastic wife, and she's doing a whale of a job as our country's First Lady, and I'm really proud of her.

We're here to talk about Social Security. And I've got some other things on my mind I want to share with you. But before we talk about anything, I do want to thank Congressman Harold Ford for being here. I'm honored you're here, Congressman. I appreciate your service to this great city. Just about every time I see him, he says to me, "You need to get over to Memphis. We've got a great town full of fantastic people." Congressman, I'm honored you're here.

Mayor A.C. Wharton, thank you for being here. I appreciate you coming. Thank you, sir. Got a lot of friends—I see the sheriff; he's here. It's always important to say hello to the high sheriff.

Bishop G.E. Patterson is here. I'm honored you're here, Bishop Patterson. Thank you for coming. I want to thank a lot of the other friends of mine in the clergy who are here. You know, when we talk about the role of religion in society, it's always important to emphasize that one of the things that makes us great is that we separate the church and the state, that you're equally American if you choose to worship or not worship. You're equally American if you're a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Sikh, whatever you choose to do.

But one of the things I think is important is to include faith-based programs in the healing of hearts so that America can be a hopeful place. I do not fear the influence of faith in our society. I welcome faith.

And over the next 4 years, we'll continue to work with the generals and colonels and sergeants and privates in the army of compassion to help change our country one heart and one soul at a time. If you want to serve America, feed the hungry, find shelter for the homeless. If you want to do something patriotic, mentor a child and teach him or her how to read. If you want to make America a better place, put your arm around somebody hurt—who hurts and says, "I love you, brother," or, "I love you, sister, and I'm here to help you." No, America's great strength is the hearts and soul of our citizens. And we must continue to rally that great strength to make America a better place.

I do want to talk a little bit about foreign policy. For the youngsters here, I hope you pay attention to what you're seeing. What you're seeing is an amazing moment in the history of freedom. Because we acted to defend ourselves, we liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban. And millions of people voted in a Presidential election.

I met with one of the ministers, a female minister from Afghanistan the other day. She came into the Oval Office. She said she was looking forward to this moment to see me and Laura so that she could share with me her great gratitude about the fact that she could live in a free society. And I said to her, "I'm going to be traveling the country, and I'm going to share your thanks with the American people." So on behalf of this minister, this woman serving in the Cabinet, this person who loves freedom, this person who has a chance to realize her dreams, she says thanks—thanks to the millions who now live in a free society.

I believe there will be a Palestinian democracy living side by side with Israel in peace. I believe that the actions taken by millions of Iraqi citizens in the face of incredible terrorist threats sent a clear signal to people around the world, that freedom is a beautiful thing. The reason I bring this up is I want everybody to understand that we'll defend our security. We'll utilize our great military and our intelligence gathering capabilities to defend our country. We're united in the United States—with the United States Congress in this objective. All of us in Washington understand that we have a solemn duty to protect our country. But in the long run, the way to defeat the ideologues of hate is to spread freedom and democracy. Freedom is moving around the world. Deep in everybody's soul is the great desire to live in freedom, and the United States of America, working with friends and allies, must use our influence to continue the march of freedom for the sake of peace for generations to come.

Some good news in the economy last week—we added 262,000 new jobs last month. There are more people working in America than ever before in our Nation's history.

But there's more work to do. I gave a speech in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday. I said, you know, I reminded the folks that when I first got into office, I sent an energy plan to the United States Congress. I was concerned then, like I am concerned now, about high gasoline prices, about our dependency upon foreign sources of energy. Congress has been debating this issue now for 4 years. It's time to stop the rhetoric and stop the debate and get an energy plan to my desk that will encourage conservation, that will encourage renewable sources of energy, that will modernize the electricity grid, that will allow us to explore for oil and gas in environmentally friendly ways in the United States, that will make us less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

But the main reason I've asked you to come and asked our panelists to appear with me is because I want to talk about Social Security. First of all, let me tell you, I understand that for years, Social Security was the third rail of American politics. That meant if you grabbed ahold of it, you weren't going to do well politically. In other words, if you talked about it, people would then say, "Well, really, what he's going to do, he's going to take away the checks of our seniors." But you'll hear me describe the fact that I believe the system needs to be reformed, and I'll tell you why. And I believe political people, when they see a problem, have a duty to address that problem and not to pass that problem on to future Presidents and future Congress. I ran for office to solve problems.

Some in Congress say, "I wish you hadn't have brought up the issue. It may cause us to make a tough vote." Others in Congress have said, "Well, we really don't have any problem." That's how democracy works. There is difference of opinion. And I've got mine, and I'm going to continue traveling our country until it becomes abundantly clear to the American people we have a problem, and it's abundantly clear to those who will receive Social Security checks that nothing is going to change.

So I want to start by saying to the seniors here in Tennessee and folks listening on your television set that for you—for those of you receiving a check today and for those of you, like me, near retirement, nothing is going to change for you. You will get your check. I don't care what the TV ads say. I don't care what the propagandists say. You're going to get your check.

It's important for people to understand that, because I fully understand, a lot of people depend solely on their Social Security check for retirement. I know that. When I was the Governor of Texas, I knew that. And I know that as the President of the United States. A lot of people are depending upon the check, and the Social Security system is working for them. There is a safety net. The problem is the safety net has got a hole in it for younger Americans. The safety net is secure for older Americans. Franklin Roosevelt did a good thing when he set up Social Security. It has worked. And so the discussion today is not to get rid of Social Security. The discussion today is to build on what Franklin Roosevelt put in place, to understand that things have changed since his Presidency.

You see, Social Security worked for years because there were a lot of workers putting money into the system through their payroll taxes to pay for a limited number of beneficiaries. Matter of fact, in 1950, there were 16 workers per beneficiary. And the system works when it's that way. For example, you'll see that chart, for somebody who is making $14,200 in benefits on an annual basis, that means the worker would pay $900 to help that one person. Today, there is only 3.3 workers putting into the system. In other words, we got fewer workers paying per beneficiary. That obviously means costs are going up, and, particularly given this fact, baby boomers like me are getting ready to retire. Mine happens to be—my retirement age comes up in 2008, which is quite convenient. [Laughter]

I'll be 62 years old in 2008. And there's a lot like me, and there's more coming. And we're living longer than people during Franklin Roosevelt's time and during the fifties. And we've been promised greater benefits than the previous generations. So think about this: Fewer workers paying into the system—3.3 per beneficiary now, soon to be 2 workers per beneficiary—paying for a lot of baby boomers, like me, who have been promised greater benefits and we're living longer. And that's the math.

That's why I say there's a hole in the safety net. And that hole exists for the people coming up, because that system can't sustain itself. It you look at this chart over here, you'll see that in 2018, more money is coming—going out of the system than coming in. More money in 2020, 2029, $200 billion a year will be going out of the system than coming in. More money in '37 will be coming out of the system, coming every year—it gets worse and worse and worse because there are baby boomers like me, more of us than ever before, drawing benefit—larger benefits and living longer.

So we have a problem for a younger generation. Imagine somebody who's looking at this chart. They're going to say, "What are you going to do about it, Mr. President? What are you going to do about it?" And so I stood up in front of the Congress and said, "We have a problem." And I think I was the first President ever to say, "All options are on the table." I said, "There's been some interesting ideas." Congressman Tim Penny, when he was a Democrat Congressman from Minnesota, put some interesting ideas on the table. President Clinton, my predecessor, put some interesting ideas on the table. Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York put some interesting ideas on the table.

I have an obligation to say to people from both parties, let's fix this permanently. Let's don't slap a bandaid on the problem. Let us fix it permanently, and all ideas, bring them forward, and I'm interested in listening. There will be no political retribution when you put an idea on the table. As a matter of fact, you will get kudos. In Washington, DC, there's still partisan talk. There is still people saying, "Well, I'm not so sure I want to get involved." My call to people from both political parties is, now is the time to put aside our political differences and focus on solving this problem for generations of Americans to come.

I do want to talk about an interesting idea that I have discussed with others. Now, I have an obligation to participate in the dialog. I don't get to write the legislation, by the way. Members of the Senate and the House will write the legislation. But I have an—I've got some ideas that I'd like for people to consider, and one of them is to allow younger workers to take some of their own money and set it aside in a personal retirement account, a savings account.

And let me tell you why I like the idea. Here's why I like the idea. First of all, we'll discuss—and Congressman Penny will discuss this—about the notion of compounding rate of interest. That means if you're able to get a reasonable rate of return on your money, then over time, it grows exponentially. In other words, if you're able to set aside some of your own money in a conservative mix of stocks and bonds, you'll get a better rate of return on that money than you would on the rate of return that the Government gets for you. And it's that difference that, over time, compounds.

So take, for example, a person making $35,000 a year over his or her lifetime, and if he or she were allowed to set aside 4 percent of the payroll tax in a personal savings account, by the time he or she retired, there will be $250,000 as a part of the retirement system. That's what compounding rate of interest does.

People say, "Well, I'm not so sure I know how to invest." You know, there's kind of this notion that there is an investor class in America. That sounds a little limited to me, that only a certain number— certain type of person can invest. I don't subscribe to that notion. I believe everybody has got—should have the opportunity to invest, and I believe everybody can invest.

Now, when you say "personal account," you can't take the money and put it in the lottery. [Laughter] You've got a lottery in Tennessee? Right down the road. Well, you can't do that. Matter of fact, there would be a prescribed set of types of stocks and bonds. Obviously, we're not going to let people take their money and gamble it out. And we've done this before. See, this isn't new ground. After all, a lot of people invest their own money in 401(k)s. There's an investor class growing way beyond the concepts of the investor class. In other words, defined contributions plans are spreading out all over America. People are used to this concept. Federal employees get to do this through the Federal employee Thrift Savings Plan. In other words, the Federal Government has said to employees, "Hey, you get to invest some of your own money, if you choose, in a conservative mix of stocks and bonds."

So this concept has been around. We're not—this is an interesting—this isn't something brand new. This is an idea that ought to happen for Social Security, as well as other retirement—as it happened in other retirement funds.

Thirdly, we want people owning something. I love the fact that more people now own their home than ever before in our Nation's history. I like the fact when— there's more entrepreneurs from all walks of life, people saying, "I own my own business." That's the important part. How about letting people own a stake of the future of the country by having ownership in their own retirement plan? And that's what we're talking about, ownership.

Finally, I like the idea of being—somebody being able to accumulate assets and pass it on to their heirs. Provides for stability in society. Now, ownership ought not to be limited. It ought to be spread around in our society.

And finally, there's a macroeconomic benefit when more people save, like they would be doing through their personal accounts. It provides more capital for investment. And capital is necessary for the expansion of small business. Capital helps fuel the entrepreneurial spirit of America. The more savings, the more capital, the more jobs.

So this is an idea that I want Congress to take a look at, in the spirit of all ideas ought to be put on the table. I'm looking forward to the discussions with members of both political parties. I've got a lot of work to do in the meantime. I'm going to Louisiana after this. Next week, I'll be traveling down to Florida, checking on the brother. [Laughter] And then I'm going to be going out—then I'll be going out west. And I'm going to campaign for Social Security, because I told you earlier, we have a duty in Congress to do something about this before it becomes too late, before we saddle an entire generation with a problem we cannot solve.

Ready to go? I want to thank Tim Penny for being here. Elected to the United States Congress from Minnesota. Knows the subject really well. Congressman, thanks for coming. I'm proud you're here. Thanks for joining us.

Representative Timothy J. Penny. You bet. You bet. Mr. President, thank you, first, for putting this issue on top of the agenda because it is an urgent issue, and it's one that needs to be addressed sooner than later. Doing nothing is not an option.

[At this point, former Representative Penny, senior fellow and co-director, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute Policy Forum, Waseca, MN, made further remarks.]

The President. I want to thank Congressman Penny for sharing with us. As I mentioned, he was—he is a Democrat. But this is the spirit, of Republicans and Democrats coming together to solve this problem, that is needed. Nothing is going to happen unless people from both political parties make the decision to join together and come up with a serious solution. And I want people to understand that.

And I really want to thank Tim. He's been very active in this issue for a long period of time. Occasionally he's able to make time to join the Presidential road show to take this issue to the people, and he adds a lot of class to the road show, I want you to know. [Laughter] He's going down to Louisiana with me a little later on today. So thanks for being here, Tim.

We're going to start with Mary Hines from—where you live, Mary?

Mary Hines. I live in Hickory Withe, Tennessee.

The President. Hickory Withe, that's interesting.

Ms. Hines. A very small community— we're unincorporated. [Applause]

The President. Sounds like half the town came. [Laughter] How many people live there?

Ms. Hines. About two or three thousand.

The President. Yes, that's good, yes. Four times bigger than Crawford. [Laughter] Thanks for joining us.

Ms. Hines. Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

The President. Are you receiving any Social Security?

Ms. Hines. Yes, I am. I've worked for 40 years as a secretary. My husband worked 40 years for DuPont, and we're both drawing Social Security.

The President. And is it important to you?

Ms. Hines. It is very important. It is part of our retirement plan.

The President. Good. Are you worried about the reforms taking it away from you?

Ms. Hines. No, in fact, we—as we understand it, this is—the reforms will not affect us. However, my children—like you—are in the baby boomer era when they retire. So this will affect them somewhat. But basically, it will affect my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. So it's some——

The President. No, I appreciate—sorry to interrupt. Now that I have, I better say something. [Laughter] She has a vital point. There are a lot of grandmothers who are justifiably concerned about what Social Security means to their grandchildren. This is a generation where Social Security has worked. She and her husband are getting help from the Social Security system. After all, it's their money coming back to them.

And I can't tell you how many times I've heard from people once we have assured citizens that nothing changes for them, that, "What are you going to do about my grandchildren?" This is a generational issue. It is an issue that is very important for Members of Congress to understand that a lot of grandparents care deeply about not only their own security, but once they're—once they're assured, they care deeply about the security of their grandchildren. And I want to thank you for sharing that with us.

Anything else you want to——

Ms. Hines. Well, I look at your chart over here, and I would like to thank those workers who are helping pay my Social Security right now.

The President. That's right. [Laughter] That would be me and a lot of other people. Good news is, they're going to keep paying, and you'll keep getting your check.

Beverly Peterson is with us. She's got a very interesting story. Ready to go? You look like you're ready to go. [Laughter]

[Beverly Peterson, administrative assistant, St. Mary's Episcopal School, Memphis, TN, made brief remarks.]

The President. Yes, let me—thank you for sharing that with us. What Beverly is saying is, is that she was too young for the survivor benefits, and therefore the money that he put into the system—"he" being the husband—there was nothing there. And because she has contributed to the Social Security system, when she retires, you'll get the benefits because of your check, because of your contributions, not because of your husband's contributions.

Personal accounts—think about what personal accounts would have done for Beverly. The husband works, puts money aside since 16 years old. What age was he when he passed away?

Ms. Peterson. Forty-nine.

The President. Forty-nine years old, so that's 33 years of compounding rate of interest, 33 years of that money set aside would grow. And when he passed away, there is an asset base for Beverly that she gets, and she can live on it. It'll help her transition to her days of retirement. In other words, that's one of the benefits of being able to accumulate your own assets that, as Tim said, you call your own. And when it's your own asset, you can pass it on to whomever you choose.

The system is an important system today, but it has got holes in the safety net. And one of the holes in the safety net is, a widow like Beverly did not have any assets when her husband passed away.

Thank you for sharing that story with us. Good job.

Pastor Andrew Jackson. Welcome, Pastor Jackson.

Andrew Jackson. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm delighted to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

The President. Well, we're glad you're here. You pastor what church, sir?

Pastor Jackson. Faith Temple Ministries, Church of God and Christ.

The President. Great.

Pastor Jackson. My bishop is Bishop G.E. Patterson and——

The President. Bishop Patterson, a fine man.

Pastor Jackson. Bishop Jerry Maynard is my——

The President. Good. How's the congregation doing?

Pastor Jackson. It's doing quite well. It's kind of like the city bus; we have some getting on and some getting off. [Laughter]

The President. The difference in your case is, the fare is free. [Laughter]

Pastor Jackson. Yes, that's true.

The President. Tell me why you're here. Thanks for coming. I'm honored. I want to hear your views on Social Security.

[Pastor Jackson made further remarks.]

The President. That's called political propaganda.

Pastor Jackson. Oh, political—okay, political propaganda.

The President. That's what they said when I ran for President in 2000. I actually brought the issue up. They said, "If he gets elected, he's going to take away your check." It didn't happen. Everybody got their checks. That's why propaganda—that's empty. That means——

Pastor Jackson. It's empty.

The President. Yes, there's no truth to it. Go ahead.

[Pastor Jackson made further remarks.]

The President. See, here's what I like. I like the idea that the pastor is thinking about generations to come. And he said, "I'm worried about my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and I hope there's a system that develops that encourages asset accumulation so generation-to-generation assets can be passed on." That hasn't happened for many in our history. No, that hasn't been the case throughout the history of the United States. We haven't encouraged asset formulation. There hasn't been wealth passed from one generation to the next in certain parts of our society.

That's just the truth. And it seems like to me that it makes sense for us to come together and encourage a plan that does just that, that provides continuity from one generation to the next when it comes to assets. We want people owning something. I don't care where they're from, what political party they associate with, what neighborhood they live in. The more people own something, the better off America is, and the ability to pass assets from one generation to the next is an important part of our legacy.

Let me tell you one other thing, and then we've got two other panelists here. This system—and I want to work with members of both parties to make sure this system takes care of our poorer workers. In other words, we can design the benefit structure for that which exists in a way that recognizes some people work all their life and will have to live below the poverty level upon retirement. And we don't want that in America. There are ways to make sure this system provides a solid safety net.

Tim understands that. Harold understands that. All of us can work on this system. So I want to assure you, Pastor, that not only will the system encourage asset accumulation, but we want to make sure that whatever Social Security system exists, that when we permanently fix it, that people are given a true safety net, that the hole is fixed in the safety net, and that there is a safety net for retirees.

Harry Summer. Harry, thanks for coming.

Harry Summer. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. I understand you were a professor at one time.

Mr. Summer. Yes, sir, I was a professor of marketing for 35 years at the University of Memphis.

The President. Oh, fantastic. Well, you're watching me market. That's what I'm doing right now. [Laughter]

Mr. Summer. Well, I have a few students in the audience, as well, I'm sure. But it occurred to me—I'm worried about this young lady here, not myself.

[Mr. Summer, retired senior citizen, Memphis, TN, made further remarks, concluding as follows.]

Mr. Summer. This morning about 4:15 a.m., I woke up. I had—talked about compound interest. And you can talk about it, but I decided I would give a concrete example, so I went to my computer and worked on it for about 30 minutes—longer, I think, than that. But anyway——

The President. See, I accused him of being one of the revelers outside my hotel room. [Laughter] He assured me he was on his computer. [Laughter]

Mr. Summer. Well, it's a lot easer to do it on the computer than it is to do it by hand.

The President. That's right.

[Mr. Summer made further remarks.]

The President. Yes, see what—and that's four times the amount. In other words——

Mr. Summer. That's four times.

The President. ——the increase was four times the amount of what the investment was because of the growth. Your money grows. And again, I repeat, people are going to say, "Well, they're going to let them put it into risky adventures. It's risky to invest money." No, it's not. It's a much better rate of return than the Social Security trust today. And that's—what's risky is to leave your money in there and do nothing. That's what's risky, particularly for younger Americans.

Mr. Summer. Yes.

The President. Karen Siegfried. Thank you very much. Karen, here you are, got a bunch of older folks here on the stage.

Karen Siegfried. That's okay.

The President. It's good. Give us your story.

Ms. Siegfried. Well, the reason he's so concerned about me is because he's my grandfather, so that—he's got a little vested interest.

[Karen Siegfried, athletic trainer, Campbell Clinic, Memphis, TN, made further remarks.]

The President. You know, somebody told me one time—they took a poll amongst 20-year-olders, and 20-year-old people said they thought it was more likely they'd see a UFO than get a Social Security check. [Laughter] Interesting dynamic, isn't it? A lot of people say 20-year-olders don't care about the issues. And part of my job is to make sure that they understand the facts, because once people realize—once the seniors realize nothing is going to change, once Congress realizes there are a lot of grandfathers wondering about their granddaughters and their future, once 20-year-olders and 30-year-olders start to say, "Wait a minute. Now this is a problem, what are you going to do about it?" Those are the dynamics to get something done.

I presume you expect Congress to get something done now, before it's too late.

Ms. Siegfried. Yes, I do.

The President. Well, listen, I want to thank our panelists for coming. I thought this was an interesting dialog. Good job. I want to thank you all for giving us a chance to come report about this important issue. I'm looking forward to working with Congress. I expect there to be a civil dialog and honest debate. All ideas should be on the table. The American people are going to influence the outcome of this debate.

I want to thank the good people of Memphis for letting me come by and visit with you about it. I want to assure you, I will continue traveling our country asking people to be involved, getting people to write their Congressmen and Senators to say, "Get rid of the partisanship, sit down at the table, and modernize this system for generations to come."

God bless, and thanks for coming.

NOTE: The President spoke at 10:21 a.m. at the Canon Center for the Performing Arts. In his remarks, he referred to Mayor A.C. Wharton and Sheriff Mark H. Luttrell of Shelby County, TN; Bishop Gilbert Earl Patterson, International Presiding Bishop, Church of God in Christ, Inc.; Minister of Women's Affairs Massouda Jalal of Afghanistan; and Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Discussion participant Pastor Andrew Jackson referred to Bishop Jerry L. Maynard, Fourth Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in Tennessee, Church of God in Christ.

George W. Bush, Remarks in a Discussion on Strengthening Social Security in Memphis, Tennessee Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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