Conventional wisdom says a conference of 1,400 members of the Future Farmers of America (FAA) at Penn State University in rural State College would be a safe bet for President Bush to sell his plan to privatize Social Security.
But on June 14 hundreds of anti-Bush students and area residents showed up to protest the president’s visit and privatization scheme, including Cara Rosenthal from Williamsport whose sign read, “PA farmers know bull when they hear it.” Chanting, “Impeach, impeach,” the protesters demanded, “Hands off Social Security!”
The Centre County Democratic Party provided the coalition glue for the demonstration, which, in addition to defending the nation’s most successful anti-poverty program, also called for withdrawal from Iraq and the repeal of Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Centre County is a “red” county.
The protest in Pennsylvania’s lush farm country coincided with two related developments: the release of a new study showing that privatization of Social Security would devastate rural families and communities, and the founding of Rural Americans for a Secure Future, a coalition that includes the 14,000-member American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), the League of Rural Voters, the National Farmers Union, and about two dozen other groups.
Keith Bolin, ACGA’s chairman, told a June 15 press conference announcing the coalition that his group’s members were already upset about the GOP-led cuts in crop subsidies and the surge in agricultural imports. “Social Security was one of the better working programs the federal government ever did,” said Bolin, a self-described conservative Republican from Moline, Ill. Privatization “is a way to get more money into the coffers of corporations.”
Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) emphasized Social Security’s role in protecting rural families who face the risks of weather and disability to keep bread on the country’s tables, including their own.
Pollster Evans Witt of Princeton Survey Research told reporters, “Rural folks don’t have pension plans, so the prospect of losing the guaranteed benefit from Social Security scares people to death.”
The coalition released a new study by the Institute for America’s Future, a Washington-based public policy group, which shows rural communities rely more heavily on Social Security for income than do nonrural communities. Rural communities have greater senior populations, greater numbers of women who rely on Social Security income, and, because of the hazards of farming, a high proportion of persons who receive disability benefits. Fully 71 percent of the 2,187 counties in the U.S. are rural.
In Florida, where 27 of 67 counties fall into the rural category, Social Security accounts for 9 percent of the total personal income in rural areas, compared to 6.5 percent in nonrural areas. About 123,000 rural Floridians receive Social Security checks each month. While they lead rural Georgians, South Carolinians, Mississippians and Alabamans in their reliance on such income, tens of thousands of people in these southern states depend on the program to keep their heads above water.
In Pennsylvania, over 160,000 rural residents in 23 of 67 counties receive Social Security checks. Efforts by rural activists, combined with efforts by groups like the union-based Alliance of Retired Americans and other senior, peace and justice groups, have recently pushed two GOP congressmen — Tim Murphy and Jim Gerlach, both representing farm and semi-rural areas of the state — to oppose the Bush privatization scheme.
Meanwhile reports of Republican efforts to gracefully back out of privatization and replace it with indexing or some other “fix” continue to surface in the press.
The entrance of Rural Americans for a Secure Future onto the political stage signals that the opposition to Bush’s plan is continuing to mount. Lobbying, e-mails, letter writing, town meetings, marches, car caravans and visits to congressional home offices are stepping up. Rural Americans are adding county fairs to the list of venues where they plan to take their message of “Hands off Social Security.”
Unlike President Bush, all members of the U.S. House and one-third of the Senate will face the voters next year.