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Column: A choice between financial wizards and fairness

MINNEAPOLIS -- While Republicans and Democrats spar over extending Bush-era tax breaks for the super-wealthy, another argument is under way in Washington -- and this one has the power to devastate middle-income Americans, particularly those in states like Minnesota.

Using the national deficit to justify their position, conservative lawmakers are now claiming that we need to roll back Social Security benefits and up the retirement age to bring federal spending under control. They argue the system is nearly broke and requires massive infusions of cash just to remain solvent. Some are even back to promoting privatization, despite the collapse of Wall Street that wiped out $14 trillion in U.S. household savings.

It's apparently irrelevant that their arguments overlook basic fact. But it does shed light on what's at stake in November's elections.

According to the Social Security Trustees Report issued recently, a document presented every year since 1941, the system's future isn't nearly so dire as critics would have us believe. Social Security is operating with a surplus, which will continue to grow until 2023 when it will reach $4.5 trillion. With no change whatsoever in benefit rate or retirement age, Social Security is secure through 2037.

And its impact is acute in states like Minnesota.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, calculated in 2005 that 43 percent of all the state's seniors would fall below the poverty line were it not for monthly Social Security payments. With retirement benefits, provided at the current rate, the number of destitute Minnesota seniors age 65 and above plummets to less than 8 percent.

Little known, also, is the impact Social Security has on children. More than one in every 20 Minnesota kids under 18 would fall into poverty were it not for such things as survivors benefits following the death of a parent. As the Center's report states, "when both the breadth and severity of children's poverty are considered, Social Security does more to reduce child poverty than any other program.

An updated report by the Center is due out later this month, and it's expected to show no drop in the number of Minnesotans who rely on Social Security just to meet basic need -- and that means 765,000 in a state of just more than 5 million.

But it's a fair bet to assume even that won't change the minds of lawmakers intent on dismantling the nation's longest-running and most successful anti-poverty program, even though it's supported by workers' wages and law prohibits it ever from contributing to our nation's debt.

The Bush tax cuts at issue provide $700 billion in unpaid revenue to the top 2 percent wealthiest Americans, and they don't come without a price to the rest of us.

The upcoming elections ultimately will settle the debate and determine who wins: The well-heeled financial wizards who brought our nation to economic ruin, or retirees and children of deceased or disabled workers who banked on fairness when it came to how tax dollars would be spent.

Niel Ritchie is executive director of the League of Rural Voters, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit working to strengthen rural communities nationwide.