Two families, two views on Social Security

When the president takes his case for Social Security reform before the nation Wednesday night, Jim Greenan could probably finish George W. Bush's sentences for him. The system is heading toward ruin. Changes must be made. Americans must get control of their money.

To this father of eight, Social Security is the safety net he never counted on, so anything Mr. Bush can do to keep it in good health for him - or his children - can only be a good thing.

To John and Kathryn Swackhamer, however, Wednesday night could signal the beginning of a disaster. Their daughter has already been seared by the stock market once while planning for retirement, and many of their friends look to Social Security not as a bonus but as a lifeline.

The Greenans and the Swackhamers represent two sides of what could become the biggest domestic policy debate of the Bush presidency. Many of the dividing lines are obvious and well known, from age or address to party affiliation. But in these communities, where the bustle of the Bay Area downshifts into more modest suburbs, perhaps the clearest line is drawn by something altogether more basic: expectation.

For those who have long looked at Social Security with a skeptical eye - and often made other retirement plans because of it - reforms are an unlooked-for gift that puts their money in the best of all places: their own hands. For those who have come to count on Social Security - either because of ideology or necessity - reforms threaten to undermine the very reason the system exists: security.

Between the opposite poles of Greenans and Swackhamers, the reformers and defenders of the Social Security status quo, teeters a nation uncertain, concerned about Social Security, but still unsure about the scope of the problem - or what the remedy is.

"What they're worried about is whether they'll end up getting less as a result of all this," says retirement planner Richard Del Monte of his clients in the Bay Area. "They don't know what to believe."

That's understandable. According to the rhetoric of Capitol Hill, Social Security is either an elaborate pyramid scheme that will inevitably crash or a reasonably healthy program that is being exploited by an administration intent on destroying the welfare state.

Mr. Greenan makes no secret of where his opinions lie: "I've always looked at it as a false promise."

Those words would perhaps seem more appropriate coming from his son-in-law, a 30-something employee in the financial industry. Jeffery Wycoff sits next to his father-in-law in the spotless Greenan living room this evening, answering questions with the thoroughness and detail of a grad student defending his thesis. Polls suggest that younger Americans have less confidence in Social Security and are more open to reform - and that fits Mr. Wycoff.

Talking of actuarial tables and the birthrates of industrialized nations, he suggests that there simply aren't enough working Americans to support retirees, who are living increasingly longer. "It is a system that is going to die anyway," says Wycoff. "This might prolong it a little bit."

There is a youthful flair in his exuberance, as he talks animatedly while Greenan occasionally interjects, calm and steady. Yet the substance of their comments is the same. Even for a man nearing 60, who has raised eight children - including a daughter who is only 14 - Greenan is essentially willing to write off Social Security. And so are others.

"My clients don't have confidence that Social Security will be there as a benefit for them," says Leonard Heller of Nationwide Financial Network in Walnut Creek, Calif.

For his part, Greenan has done his homework. Here on the Bay Area's suburban fringe, where houses bend around cul-de-sacs with brick walkways and perfectly swept curbs, it becomes apparent that he is not one to leave things up in the air. A lawyer by profession, Greenan will be secure with or without Social Security, so the thought that he - or his son-in-law - might get some money in a private account is almost like a stocking on the mantel.

"The government is taking my money, and I have no say in where it goes," says Greenan. "If I have a private account, it's identifiable as something I can use."

To others, though, Bush's "ownership society" is merely a clever cover for cutting Social Security. Some reports indicate that private accounts could come along with a reduction in benefits for younger Americans. The idea is that the private accounts, invested wisely, would offset the drop in benefits.

If that's the case, says Mr. Swackhamer, the Social Security Administration might as well move to Las Vegas and hit the Strip. "The idea that they would meddle with Social Security, privatizing it in any way, means that it's part of a gambling operation," he says, referring to the vagaries of the stock market.

He's seen his stepdaughter try to prepare for retirement by investing in IRAs. She lost money in the stock-market bust, and now he wonders if she will ever catch up.

Even Wycoff, who could stand to gain business from private accounts, says that any reforms should be done cautiously, with an eye toward simplicity. He suggests that a panel in Washington - instead of private stockbrokers - should determine where Americans can invest their Social Security money.

But Swackhamer discredits the whole idea. "I don't think that was part of what Social Security was in the first place," he says. "It was about setting up something secure and knowable in advance."

This morning he sits in a vinyl-boothed cafe with his wife of 43 years wedged into the seat beside him. He retired from the music department at the University of California in Berkeley 15 years ago. That pension is enough to support him and Kathryn as he composes music and she looks for acting roles.

Kathryn settles into the easy conversation of a born performer, sharing a flimsy black-and-white photo of her "first acting role" - Martha Washington at age 5. John waits quietly for his turn to speak. But behind his glasses, his eyes are sharp and active, and there is the hint of steel in the soft andante of his voice. For several years now, he has been active in the Gray Panthers, a senior advocacy group. For some of his friends, Social Security is the only income they have. "It's not a personal vendetta" against the administration, he says. "I'm just trying to protect those who depend so heavily on Social Security."

Those ranks extend further than many have assumed. With more Americans building debt and living paycheck to paycheck, "they're counting on [Social Security] without realizing that they're counting on it," says financial planner Mr. Heller. "Ultimately, if it's there, it might be the saving grace."

Without her husband's pension, Kathryn doesn't know what she would do. Her youth was spent looking after neighbors' kids and flipping burgers at Rocky's Drive In in California's agricultural heartland - typical jobs for women in the late 1940s and early '50s that paid little, if anything. Soon after that, she got married. Now, her Social Security check is only $117 a month.

"I didn't realize [I had earned so little] until I turned 62," she says. "I don't think that a woman who chooses marriage over a career is ever going to save enough to put into a personal account."

The effective solutions to any problems that ail the system are minor, both of them suggest. If lawmakers were to move back the age at which Americans could draw from Social Security, or if they raised the tax slightly, that would be enough.

"It certainly needs to have some tinkering done," says John. "But it doesn't need to be dismantled."

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