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Social Security Problems Not a Crisis, Most Say

At the same time, the polls found that the public has quickly become informed on many key elements of the Bush plan to create individual investment accounts.

Most already know that Bush's changes would exempt those 55 and older, and people polled understand that the accounts would be protected from use by government. They also know the plan would limit investments to a few relatively safe stock and bond funds.

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Social Security Knowledge Poll (pdf)
About the Survey

This is the 12th in a series of survey projects conducted jointly by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The three sponsors worked together to develop the survey questionnaire and analyze the results. The Post and Kaiser, with Harvard, are publishing independent summaries of the findings; each organization bears sole responsibility for the work that appears under its name. The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on health care and other public policy issues, paid for the surveys and related expenses. The project team members from Kaiser included Drew E. Altman, president; Mollyann Brodie, vice president for public opinion research; and Rebecca Levin, research associate. Harvard project team members included Robert J. Blendon, a professor at the School of Public Health and John F. Kennedy School of Government, and John M. Benson, managing director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program.

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Social Security

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To measure knowledge about Social Security and the Bush plan, The Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard conducted two national telephone surveys. The first poll of 1,236 randomly selected adults was conducted Feb. 3 to 6 and measured what people knew about Social Security and their attitudes toward restructuring.

The second survey, of 1,231 randomly selected adults conducted Feb. 4 to 6, focused on what people initially have learned about the Bush plan. Both surveys have margins of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The polls suggest that the debate over Social Security restructuring is a battle of words -- but not necessarily the words the administration has worried about.

Americans seem not to change their views when the president's plan is characterized as a "private" rather than a "personal" investment account -- a change from earlier studies, in which the use of "private accounts" or "privatization" drove down support. Either way, a modest majority favored the proposal, the survey found.

Far more sensitive was the characterization of the way a restructuring would include a provision to recalculate initial benefits for retirees. Opposition rose from 68 percent when this change was characterized as "reducing the rate of growth in benefits" to 86 percent when described as "cutting guaranteed benefits." Both phrases accurately describe what would happen.

Deep Divisions

The polls also revealed that the fault lines of the presidential campaign are resurfacing in the Social Security debate. Those surveyed split down the middle on whether they trusted Democrats or Republicans to lead on Social Security. And they were almost equally divided on the values that lie at the heart of the current debate -- self-reliance vs. the government's obligation to protect its citizens.

Half said the overriding value is having a guaranteed minimum standard of living in retirement, even if that means the government decides how all Social Security taxes are invested. Nearly as many said the system should above all allow Americans to invest a portion of Social Security taxes as they wish, even if they end up taking risks that hurt them financially.

Six in 10 Democrats valued the guaranteed standard of living, while six in 10 Republicans valued the freedom to invest on their own. Seniors valued the minimum standard of living by 57 percent to 32 percent. Those younger than 40 valued the right to invest on their own by 53 percent to 42 percent.

Attitudes of those older than 55 often differed significantly from those of younger Americans, with strikingly little variation among those 18 to 55. For example, people younger than 55 are about twice as likely to say the system is in crisis than older adults. They are twice as likely as older people to say they expect to receive less in Social Security benefits than they paid into the system.

"I'm expecting to live on my own savings. I'm going to prepare for the worst so I don't get in trouble," said Sarah Kirby, 19, a political science and history major at Marquette University who said she believes Social Security is "outdated" because it did not anticipate the longevity of today's seniors.

Benjamin Palmer, 23, general manager of a Pizza Hut in New Brighton, Pa., also said he expects Social Security to run out before he retires. "Who cares?" Palmer said of the risk involved in stock investments. "People my age have no guarantee now that Social Security will be there for us. So it would be more than we've got now."

Stephen Davis, 55, a metal fabricator who lives in Forney, Tex., disagrees with Bush's proposal, even though he voted for him.

"I think it's dangerous, because in the stock market the amount of risk involved is just too great," Davis said. "It's kind of like, let the fleecing begin, benefiting stock insiders, stockbrokers, large corporations."

The survey also suggests that Bush begins the fight over Social Security without a majority of Americans backing him. One in five wants him to lead the way on Social Security, while a similar proportion has more confidence in congressional Republicans. More than four in 10 -- 43 percent -- say they trust congressional Democrats on the issue. Taken together, the findings suggest that about half want Democrats to handle this issue, while about half have more confidence in Republicans.

Although half of all retirees say Social Security is their major source of income, few younger Americans say they plan to rely on the system to be anything more than a supplement to their retirement incomes.

More than two-thirds of the country knows that payroll taxes paid into the Social Security trust fund are lent to the federal government and spent on other programs. But more than six in 10 of these doubt that the federal government will ever pay that money back -- one big reason the system is now in trouble, a lopsided majority says.

"Pay it back? The government?" said Margaret Abrams, 59, who owns a plumbing company in Somerville, Mass. "They're never going to pay it back. It's not on the list."

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

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