WEBSTER CITY, Iowa - Declaring ``I am blessed to be wealthy,'' Senator John F. Kerry said that, if elected president, he would consider some form of means-testing for rich Americans as part of a broader review of ideas to shore up the Social Security system.
The Massachusetts Democrat told a group of Hamilton County political activists late Tuesday that one idea bearing exploration is eliminating Social Security payments to the wealthy after they have recouped the money they paid into the federal retirement program during their working life.
``Rich people are getting checks from poor people, well beyond what they put into the system,'' said Kerry, a millionaire in his own right and the husband of Teresa Heinz Kerry. She is a philanthropist and heiress to the Heinz ketchup empire whose net worth has been estimated at more than $550 million.
Kerry said he had a right to recoup his personal tax payments into the retirement system but no need for government support beyond that.
A spokeswoman for the AARP said that the nonpartisan association would not comment on candidates' positions, but added that it did not support means-testing for Social Security recipients.
Another idea Kerry said he would consider is raising the cut-off point after which people no longer pay into the system. Americans pay Social Security taxes only on the first $86,000 they earn in a year. Kerry said he has heard suggestions about raising that threshold as a way of building up the fund for the pending retirement of the baby boom generation.
``Maybe people ought to pay up to $100,000 or $120,000, I don't know,'' the senator said.
The baby boom generation is expected to put a tremendous strain on the retirement system, and the government projects that Social Security could be insolvent by 2042.
But tinkering with Social Security is considered akin to touching the third rail in politics, because poorer Americans have relied on the program since it was instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. And older Americans who are receiving Social Security checks are an active and potent group of voters.
Kerry presented his ideas in response to an audience question. Aware of the potential political peril, he took pains to couch his remarks, both to the county Democrats and to a group of reporters who interviewed him after the appearance.
He said he has not committed to the ideas and would consider them only after assembling ``a group of wise souls who've been through the process'' to conduct a larger review of Social Security.
Kerry also said he has decided against two ideas that have already generated protests: raising the full Social Security retirement age beyond 67, and reducing the payments made under the program.
In addition, the senator said his administration would not consider privatizing Social Security, as President Bush has advocated, which would allow individuals to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.
Kerry said the recent decline of the stock market highlights the risk of that approach.
``We can save Social Security, and I guarantee I will, and everybody gets it, everybody gets it,'' Kerry said. ``I'm just trying to say it's not as complicated as some people think it may be. I will not touch the [social] contract. The contract, in my judgment, is sacrosanct between generations.''
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.