The Issues: Social Security

CBS News continues an election-year series titled "What Does It Mean To You?" focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In this report, CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers compares the Bush and Kerry plans for reforming the nation's Social Security system.

You might not expect Social Security to be a hot topic on a college campus, but then you haven't met Ann Eliason.

"I am a 20-year-old who's interested in Social Security," says Eliason. "Research has shown that Social Security isn't going to be there by the time my generation gets to need it."

Eliason has done her homework – literally. While preparing for a debate on Social Security, she found something that hits home every time she looks at her pay stub – and every time she listens to the presidential campaign.

"I'm putting money into something that I'm not going to see," she says. "I would really like it if one of the candidates would express a little more what they would do reform-wise."

Experts agree some kind of reform is needed, because while the system is currently running a surplus, in just four years the first of the enormous baby boomer generation starts hitting retirement age – and that could eventually break the Social Security system.

"We have to make hard choices no matter which way we go, says Bob Bixby with the Concord Coalition. "There are going to have to be some unpleasant political options and neither candidate is addressing those options."

That's because ever since Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law in 1935, Social Security has been considered the third rail of American politics, and the candidates know it.

"If you're on Social Security today, nothing is going to change," says President Bush.

"I will not cut Social Security benefits," says Sen. John Kerry, "and I will not raise retirement age."

Kerry believes the key to fixing Social Security is to first fix the economy, attack the federal deficit, making more tax money available to meet the looming demand.

"With very minor changes, with a strong economy, the next generation will have social security. I will never privatize Social Security,'' says Kerry.

President Bush is calling for changes that would allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts to build their own nest eggs.

"An account they can call their own; an account that will help Social Security make their promise, an account the government can not take away," the president says.

Despite a lack of specifics, and skepticism from critics, Ann Eliason says she prefers President Bush's proposal.

"He at least has admitted that he sees some sort of reform needs to be taking place and it needs to be done soon," she says.

As she prepares to enter the workforce full time, she says she has more faith in her own promise than a government promise that may never pan out.