With the 2004 presidential primary elections fast approaching, voters should know where the major candidates stand on a critical issue: Social Security choice.

Millions of Americans know that Social Security is in trouble. With the ratio of workers to retirees narrowing, the nation’s largest and most popular program will be unable to maintain its current benefit level for retirees without running huge deficits or significantly raising taxes on workers.

To avoid this scenario, most financial experts support moving to a funded system that allows workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts (PRAs). Such accounts would be highly diversified and would create new wealth that would head off the problem before it arises.

Let’s examine the position of each of the major presidential candidates on the PRA option.

According to the New York Times, Gov. Howard Dean, D-Vt., said in 1995 that he “absolutely” believed in raising the Social Security retirement age to address the looming insolvency of the system. Now, however, Dean proposes raising the cap on taxable wages to pay future Social Security benefits.

But raising the cap (a tax increase) only buys us a few years to insolvency while PRAs will permanently solve the problem. Liberals like Dean should instead support Social Security choice, as low-income individuals would greatly benefit from owning and building real wealth in their personal accounts.

Retired Army General Wesley Clark hinted in a recent debate that he might be open to the idea of PRAs, but also said we need to “fix Social Security first” before allowing for private investment options.

As a new entrant into the Democratic race, Clark may be excused for being vague, but the only real way to fix Social Security permanently is by building real savings through PRAs. Voters must insist he take a clear stand for the personal accounts before supporting his candidacy.

Sen. John Kerrey, D-Mass., has been outspoken about his position on the issue. Unfortunately, he’s on the wrong side of it.

Kerry has said, “We must uphold the promise of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton and never allow the President and his Republican friends to threaten Social Security by putting it on the Wall Street trading block.”

Perhaps the good Senator doesn’t understand the real threat to Social Security isn’t the “Wall Street trading block” but the dwindling number of workers to retirees– or perhaps he's simply engaging in demagoguery.

Democratic Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri had this to say about PRAs: “In a prolonged bear market, the entire market may fall so far that it takes years to recover. Those who retire before the recovery may simply be out of luck.”

Actually, the market has always provided a greater rate of return over the long run than has Social Security. In addition, reform proposals contain a minimum-benefit provision explicitly guaranteeing that no worker could be wiped out by a sudden downturn in the market.

In the 1990s, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., suggested he'd be willing to consider the idea of personal accounts. Then he became Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 and hastily repudiated the idea as a “risky scheme.”

That brings us to President George W. Bush. In his 2000 campaign, Bush proposed allowing workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes into PRAs and has continued to voice support for the idea. Nevertheless, he has yet to actively push for reform of the current system.

It’s important for voters to understand that America’s changing population makes Social Security reform inevitable. The only question is: will we quickly enact positive reform like PRAs instead of waiting until the last minute to cut benefits or hike taxes?

That’s a question any presidential candidate should clearly answer in the affirmative before voters give him their support.

Bob Costello is president of Social Security Choice.org.