THE VILLAGES — It's an urgent issue seemingly on the minds of many in this retiree mecca, if not the entire state of Florida — how to fix Social Security. And voters' proposed solutions to the tricky problem are just as varied as the stances of the Republican presidential candidates seeking their support.
Jim Minucci, 76, backs Mitt Romney and his idea to gradually raise the age of eligibility for younger workers. "If we continue to spend and take money from Social Security, I think in the long run it's going to be hurting," Minucci said as he walked through a town square here to meet his wife for lunch.
But Bill LeBeau argues that retirees should get more to keep up with inflation and likes Newt Gingrich's call for creating private investment accounts for younger workers. "That would be really good," said LeBeau, 89, as he held a cigar while sitting in a golf cart adorned with an American flag and a "God Bless America" bumper sticker.
On this recent day at least, there seemed to be little discussion here, in Florida's largest retirement community, about former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's pitch even though it's the most aggressive position of any of the Republican presidential candidates. He wants to lower benefits for wealthier retirees, raise the age to qualify for full benefits and restrict inflation increases in benefits.
"We need to change benefits for everybody now," says Santorum, who campaigned in this area this week. "We can't wait 10 years."
For decades, the idea of tinkering with the retirement safety net was taboo for politicians. That was especially true in Florida, which has the highest proportion of people age 65 or over, its 2.8 million seniors second only to California. But with the skyrocketing costs of entitlement programs boosting the nation's debt, the Republican candidates are advocating for changes they say will ensure future retirees can draw benefits.
Of the GOP front-runners, Romney wants to preserve benefits for people 55 and over but would, for the next generations of retirees, raise the retirement age for full benefits one or two years. The former Massachusetts governor also wants to reduce inflation increases in benefits for wealthier recipients.
Gingrich, the former House speaker, supports giving younger workers the option of diverting Social Security taxes to private retirement accounts. Employers would still pay their share to the federal government, which would protect private account holders in the event of a huge drop in stock markets.
President Barack Obama, who is seeking re-election, hasn't proposed any changes in current or future benefits and has instead called for a bipartisan look at how to strengthen the program. He supported the $250 payment to Social Security recipients in the 2009 federal stimulus package and has called for a second $250 payment to beneficiaries.
The issue is all but certain to be a major one in Florida, both in the GOP primary on Jan. 31 and in the general election. An estimated 31 percent of people who voted in Florida's general election in 2010 were 65 or older, and they voted at a higher rate than any other age group. Seniors made up 33 percent of voters in the 2008 GOP primary, the highest share of any state with a GOP exit poll that year.
In September, a Quinnipiac University poll found that registered Republicans in Florida generally hold a more positive than negative view of Social Security, but they do support some changes to the system to keep it solvent.
A majority (53 percent) would favor increasing the age to qualify for benefits, a proposal opposed by most Democrats and independents, and 6 in 10 support raising the income cap for Social Security taxes in order to increase the amount of money coming into the Social Security system. Majorities oppose reducing benefits for current (84 percent) or future (55 percent) retirees in order to increase funding for the system.
Here in The Villages, retirement is a way of life. So is collecting Social Security and, it seems, the fear of losing it.
"We're afraid that it's going to be cut or that we're going to lose what we put into it," said John Turek, 62, of Council Bluffs, Iowa.
In this community of 75,000 people, golf carts are as common as cars and hundreds of residents gather each night for live music, line dancing and two-for-one drinks in a town square surrounded by a movie theater, church and restaurants.
Voters here tend to be conservative. And, judging from a series of interviews this month with residents, there's a palpable worry among residents about the growing national debt, budget-busting entitlement programs and whether Social Security will be around as a safety net for their children and grandchildren.
"It's going to affect other generations," said Dolly Boudreaux, 70, of Lady Lake. "I'm not against paying a little more in taxes. I don't want to pay a lot more in taxes, but if that will help my children and grandchildren, I could go for that."