TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Marco Rubio wants Americans to work longer and retire later to places like Florida, a stand that has drawn criticism from his Senate rivals and unnerves some in the Sunshine State where one out of every seven residents gets a Social Security check.
As the nation grapples with the fast-growing insolvency of entitlement programs, likely Republican nominee Rubio has proposed raising the retirement age and changing the calculation for providing benefits. Rubio wants to raise the full-retirement age, which now ranges from 65 to 67 depending on a person's birth year, until it reaches 70 in the next century.
"It's just going to have to be reformed because if left to its current status then it bankrupts itself and then it bankrupts America," said the 38-year-old Rubio. "If the system is now taking in less money than it's paying out, then it's only going to get worse as we have less workers and more retirees."
His likely Democratic rival, Rep. Kendrick Meek, favors the creation of a bipartisan commission to examine the Social Security program. Gov. Charlie Crist, who recently abandoned the Republican Party to run as an independent, has called for giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, arguing that more money would flow into the system. [See who is giving money to Meek's campaign.]
Rubio's proposal would not affect the 2.5 million retirees in Florida, but the mere discussion of any changes to the safety net program signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 alarms the millions in their 30s, 40s and early 50s who might not like the idea of having to work longer before receiving benefits.
"I don't think it's fair to the people that are paying in," said Mary Miller, 63, of Perry, Fla., who said she supports the idea of getting illegal immigrants to pay into the system.
She and her husband, Chuck, 69, said they are still considering who to vote for in the race and that Social Security will be important issue. Chuck Miller said he could support raising the eligibility age, but only for people who haven't begun paying into the system.
"If you've been paying into it, you've got to have grandfathered rights. If you're not paying into it yet, that's when they can raise it," he said.
Meek said there's no rush to make changes to the program.
"Social Security doesn't face a crisis, it just faces challenges," Meek said. "Speaker Rubio, he's ringing an alarm bell. The trust fund is not going to be exhausted until, projections have said, 2037. And Social Security can still meet it's obligations by 75 percent of benefits promised even after that."
Meek's proposed commission would look at ways to strengthen the program without raising the eligibility age.
"I'm very concerned about that," he said of Rubio's position. "I'm very sure Floridians are concerned about that and that's something that he's going to have to explain to Floridians."
Crist thinks the nation's estimated 14 million illegal immigrants could be the key to saving Social Security. He says many aren't paying into the system now and if they applied for and received citizenship, they would have to start contributing.
"I'm concerned about it, I think everybody is," Crist said, adding that he opposes Rubio's idea. "I don't want to punish anyone in order to fix it."
Conservative critics of Crist argue that many illegal immigrants are already paying into the system by using false paperwork to get jobs, but they are unlikely to collect Social Security. A further complication, they say, is that the amount that illegal immigrants contribute may provide a slight boost in the short term but will cost the federal government much more in the long run if they begin drawing checks and use other programs like Medicare and welfare.
The AARP Florida branch said the issue resonates with seniors.
"Anytime our elected officials begin debating the future of Social Security, millions of Floridians pay attention," said Lori Parham, Florida director for senior lobby. "Social Security pumps $3.7 billion a month into Florida's economy. Without it, half of Floridians age 65 or older would be plunged into poverty."