WASHINGTON — Defenders of Social Security charged this week that a “means test” on Social Security as proposed by President George W. Bush would inflict huge benefit cuts for 70 percent of recipients, clearing the way to destroy the system vital to Americans’ economic security.

Bush unveiled his proposal for “progressive indexing” of Social Security benefits at an April 29 White House news conference. His plan would divide workers into income categories. Only those at the very bottom would receive current benefit levels. For, everyone else benefits would be cut by changing the way those benefits are calculated. This “means-testing,” pitting worker against worker, was anathema to the New Deal founders of Social Security, who fashioned a universal system in which benefits were pegged to how much a worker paid into the system. Bush also stubbornly defended private retirement accounts despite their rejection by a strong majority of the people.

“The president continues to ignore the growing opposition to privatization. Now he wants to weaken Social Security even further with an extreme means test on benefits,” said former Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “There is no longer any doubt that the administration’s approach would dismantle Social Security.”

Under Bush’s proposal, she charged, “three out of four workers under age 55 would lose between 20 and 50 percent of their Social Security benefit even if they didn’t opt for the private account.”

Those who invest in private accounts, she added, will lose an additional dollar of Social Security benefits for every dollar they invest in the accounts. “They would see this reduction in benefits regardless of how their accounts performed,” Kennelly warned. “Thus for many workers, the guaranteed benefit would disappear completely over time.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Bush’s indexing scheme “would cut guaranteed benefits enormously, gigantically increase the federal budget deficit and force retirees to rely on risky private accounts for their retirement income.”

Alan Charney of USAction, which is spearheading a nationwide grassroots drive to defend Social Security, told the World, “Bush calls it ‘progressive indexing.’ We call it ‘regressive benefit cuts.’”

USAction together with its allies, he said, has organized “stop privatization” rallies in 35 states. While Bush’s 60-day roadshow for privatization was a flop, the “Save Social Security” rallies are helping turn the tide against the Bush plan, he said.

A bloc of moderate Republican senators and representatives in states like Maine, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania “need to hear from voters” demanding that they vote “no” on Bush’s plan, Charney said.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) released an analysis of Bush’s proposal, warning that the combination of private accounts and benefit indexing “could ultimately lead to the unraveling of Social Security.”

David Kamin, a CBPP researcher who helped prepare the analysis, told the World that the Bush plan, based on a scheme drawn up by investment banker Robert Pozen, is set up “to make the Social Security system look bad.”

Bush would turn Social Security into a welfare program for the working poor, those now earning below $20,000 a year, he said. “They would cut the guaranteed benefits so low that it will look worthless,” Kamin said. “People then would be open to eliminating the system completely.”

The report reveals that a worker earning $36,000 today who retires in 2055 would face a 21 percent reduction in his or her Social Security benefits under Bush’s indexing scam. If that worker also opted for Bush’s private accounts, his or her defined Social Security benefit would be slashed by 66 percent from $1,844 a month in today’s dollars to $626 a month. A worker who earns $59,000 a year and opts for private retirement accounts would suffer an 87 percent cut in guaranteed Social Security benefits. “Instead of a monthly benefit of $2,441 in today’s dollars, their benefit would be $331,” the report charges.

CBPP released a fact sheet on Bush’s attempt to “mislead,” a polite word for lying. For example, Bush told the news conference, “The money from a voluntary personal account would supplement the check one receives from Social Security.” In fact, Social Security’s guaranteed benefits would be reduced dollar for dollar for all funds invested in private accounts. Similarly, Bush claimed the private accounts could be bequeathed to family heirs in the event of early death. “But that is not how the president’s proposal works,” the report charged. Under his proposal, the surviving spouse would inherit, along with the deceased spouse’s private account, the cuts in Social Security survivor benefits to pay for having diverted money into a private account. Many surviving spouses “would lose money,” the report said.

Bush said that people nervous about the stock market can invest in Treasury bonds “backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government.” CBPP pointed out that when belittling the Social Security trust fund Bush called them “file cabinets full of IOUs.” In fact these IOUs are the same Treasury bonds that Bush advises workers to buy as a “rock solid investment option” in their private accounts.