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Hispanic Groups Blast Bush's Social Security Plan

By Stephen Curran

March 1, 2005
Copyright © 2005 LAS VEGAS SUN. All rights reserved.

Two prominent advocacy groups for Hispanics on Monday denounced the Bush Administration's plan to privatize much of the nation's Social Security system, saying it would shortchange millions of Hispanic families nationwide.

The proposed change would undermine decades worth of progress for tight-knit Hispanic families, who rely heavily on the system to care for aged family members, leaders from the League of United Latin Americans and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement said at a press conference launching the Latinos for a Secure Retirement coalition.

The two groups' pitch, delivered to mostly visiting union members and a cadre of Democratic leaders that included Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., came as the AFL-CIO convenes in Las Vegas this week. It also comes on the heels of the Assembly's resolution Thursday urging Congress to oppose any kind of privatization to the system.

"We have many, many people who would be disenfranchised in the Latino community," union executive vice president Linda Chavez Thompson told the crowd of roughly two dozen people at Ballys in a bilingual address. "... What are we going to do? Put them on dog food?"

The alliance represents a step forward for a local Latino community still working to find its political voice, state Democratic Chairwoman Adriana Martinez said.

While almost 360,000 residents strong, the Hispanic community in Southern Nevada has not gained the political foothold here that their peers have in Southwest states, she said.

It's a disadvantage Democrats and Hispanic groups including LCLAA and LULAC hope to counter by launching an "extremely aggressive" campaign that includes stepped-up recruitment and rallies at local unions, she said.

Martinez spoke -- at times in Spanish -- of her own family to illustrate what she called the "dramatic and devastating effect" the Bush Administration's plan would have on the largely unskilled workers who most rely on Social Security.

"We're a fairly young group," Martinez said. "We're big in numbers but we have a lot of work to do."

Ed Vargas, assistant to the president of the local UNITE HERE union and an executive board member of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said the proposed changes would plunge up to 60 percent of retirement-age Hispanics and their families into poverty.

UNITE HERE, formed in July after the merger of the clothing, laundry and textile union UNITE and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, or HERE, represents an estimated 50,000 members in Clark County.

"For a lot of folks out there, that's it," Vargas said of the Social Security checks often used to supplement other pensions or retirement funds. "It's a lose, lose, lose situation."

If passed, the plan would divert a portion of federal payroll taxes that now goes to current retirees into private accounts, which proponents say could be invested by individual workers. It has met with almost unanimous Democratic criticism and skepticism among some Republicans wary of the possibility of raising taxes.

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., whose name appeared on a list of 29 Republicans who opposed parts of the plan, has said he is opposed to full privatization of Social Security but he supports a portion of payroll taxes being invested in some form of personal account.

Adam Mayberry, a spokesman for Porter, criticized the attacks on the president's plan, saying the ideas within it needed to be discussed more fully.

"Democrats and Republicans have to work together and that hasn't happened so far," he said. "Democrats are attacking the program before the debate has even begun. The congressman (Porter) supports discussing and debating all ideas. At the end of the day there may be 435 ideas."

Mayberry said Porter has encouraged the president to consider a national version of Nevada's Public Employees Retirement System, a voluntary plan that allows state employees to invest part of their salary to a private index fund. Similar programs are also in place in California and Oregon.

Berkley, whose district is 28 percent Hispanic, called the plan "the most inane, ridiculous proposal" that could potentially wipe out the finances of families with the most to lose.

"Let's say you invested in Enron, or WorldCom, or Tyco," she said, referring to recent corporate accounting scandals. "How much would your private account be worth now? Nada."

Vargas said he was wary of the plan, which he said would open the door for fly-by-night companies that prey on workers unfamiliar with private investments.

"I just barely learned about mutual funds myself," he said. "Many young people now have only seen the stock market when everyone was making money. Too many people don't understand (the stock market). President Roosevelt understood."

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