Three months after President Bush launched his drive to restructure Social Security by creating private investment accounts, public support for his program remains weak, with only 35 percent of Americans now saying they approve of his handling of the issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
While the White House has helped convince more than two-thirds of those polled that Social Security is heading for a crisis or possible bankruptcy without change, 56 percent disapprove of his approach, a survey of 1,001 adults conducted March 10-13 shows. By comparison, 38 percent approved of his handling of the issue and 52 percent disapproved of it in mid-December.
Moreover, 58 percent of those polled this time said the more they hear about Bush's plan, the less they like it. The latest polling, combined with detailed interviews last week, shows that Bush's drive to significantly alter the 70-year-old national insurance program has run into significant hurdles with every age cohort.
A majority of elderly voters have turned against the plan for private accounts, even though the White House has assured them it would have no impact on their Social Security benefits. Younger workers, who have the most to gain, also tend to be the most difficult to mobilize, according to interviews. And many middle-aged workers are faced with the reality that there would not be enough time before their retirement to gain much financial benefit from the new approach.
"The president knows it's a challenge and is taking it head-on," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "He is just getting started, and he's going to keep traveling, pushing and explaining to people of all ages why Social Security needs to be fixed permanently and why it's best that personal accounts be part of the solution."
For middle-aged workers such as Kathy Remenar of Midland, Mich., the issue is simple mathematics.
"I personally wouldn't get a whole lot out of it, really," said the 46-year-old director of science and technology for Dow Corning Corp.'s specialty chemicals business. "It's not relevant to me."
Bush has promised that, under his proposal, workers would eventually be able to divert 4 percent of their income subject to payroll taxes to private accounts, which could then be invested in stocks and bonds. A 46-year-old earning the maximum income subject to Social Security taxation -- currently $90,000 -- could theoretically salt away $3,600 a year.
But the plan would be phased in slowly, starting in 2009 with an initial annual cap of $1,000 and rising by $100 a year. It would take an additional 26 years for someone at the taxable maximum to save the promised 4 percent. By then, Remenar would be 76 and long since retired. And in the short time period available to middle-aged workers, investment gains would have to exceed inflation by 3 percent for the accounts to make more money than the traditional Social Security system would provide.
"If there are no other incentives than this, we probably wouldn't take part in it, because the numbers don't make a whole lot of sense for us personally," said Sue Smorodin, 45, a homemaker in St. Louis.
Republican Michael Cardwell, a land-use planner in Washington state, did the math. He would retire with $11,000 in his account, plus maybe $900 more in investment gains if all went well on the stock market.
"Wow," Cardwell, 50, said with a laugh. "I may get one additional paycheck, thank you very much." Nonetheless, he said he will support the president.
Not all middle-aged workers are skeptical. Marilyn Donnelly, a 46-year-old nurse on Florida's central Atlantic coast, said that with luck a personal account could grow substantially, and she relishes the opportunity to give it a try. She is already saving 16 percent of her income for retirement, Donnelly said, but too much of her paycheck is going to a Social Security system that is not likely to do as well with the money as she could.
"I want the opportunity to invest some of that money myself so it will grow more than what Social Security is going to give me," said Donnelly, of Rockledge. "And I feel [Bush is] offering me that opportunity."