By James Fuller
The group of senior citizens surrounding Bill Foster at a diner in downtown Joliet Friday told stories familiar to many retirees.
They were hard-luck accounts of having to spend 401(k) or other retirement money on unexpected medical costs or to help keep a loved one avoid foreclosure. They were stories of tough lessons learned about depending on a home's appreciation in value for retirement money only to see their property be worth less than what's owed on the mortgage.
Perhaps most importantly for voters, they were also stories filled with fear and frustration over the future of Social Security checks, which the seniors depend on to pay the bills.
How to address those fears is an area the 11th Congressional District candidates -- Democrat Bill Foster and Republican Judy Biggert -- don't agree.
The key difference is privatization of Social Security. Neither candidate is in favor of far-reaching privatization that would see the federal government invest a large portion of Social Security funds in the stock market.
Biggert has spoken in favor of what some term "partial privatization" where individuals can choose to put a small portion, generally 2 percent, of their Social Security tax payments, into private accounts. Those accounts could then be invested in the stock market.
Foster doesn't make a distinction between full or partial privatization when speaking about the dangers of putting Social Security dollars into the stock market. Indeed, his campaign put out a statement Friday blasting Biggert for supporting legislation in favor of privatization. Biggert's campaign responded by calling the statement "baseless" and "fear-mongering."
"The truth of the matter is that Judy Biggert is the only candidate with a proven record of fighting for seniors and for the programs they rely on," Biggert campaign spokesman Gill Stevens said. "Judy has always opposed privatizing Social Security, which would have the government investing our payroll taxes in stocks and bonds, picking winners and losers and taking over a substantial portion of the stock market."
Foster believes placing any of Social Security's future in the hands of Wall Street is a bad idea. There is too much risk in the stock market, as demonstrated in recent years, to put a program that should already be considered a safety net at the whims of the market, he said.
Foster also believes money managers would extract fees from those Social Security investments that only put a further drain on retirement savings.
Foster said a series of solutions -- some of them possibly painful -- are the answer for Social Security's solvency.
In previous campaigns Foster spoke of possibly increasing the age recipients would be eligible to access Social Security benefits. But he wouldn't commit to that idea Friday.
"I think everything should be on the table, but I'm not going to get behind any one of these specific proposals until I've seen the whole compromise," Foster said.
There is one proposal Foster said seems like a reasonable partial fix for Social Security. Foster favors President Barack Obama's plan to make the portion of income above $250,000 subject to the Social Security tax for the first time. Some, including Biggert's camp, see that as Foster advocating a tax increase.
Foster sees it as acknowledgment that the wealthiest people simply don't need Social Security as long as they remain wealthy.
"Warren Buffett doesn't need it," Foster said. "But if everything he owns crashes, then he will. And somewhere, deep in the back of his mind, is the knowledge that if everything else goes wrong in his financial life he will not starve. It is a safety net."
Foster favors annual "means testing" of a person's wealth to determine if he or she should still receive Social Security benefits.