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    What America Thinks
    Americans Tired of Guessing Social Security's Future

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, May 31, 1999

    Politicians may be looking the other way, but a majority of Americans say they don't want their elected leaders to wait to fix the Social Security system until after the next presidential election, according to two new national surveys.

    The public also suspects that the Social Security trust fund may be misused. And big majorities say they don't want their elected leaders cutting benefits or raising the age at which older Americans may begin collecting benefits.

    Those findings emerge from a survey conducted by Americans Discuss Social Security (ADSS), a nonpartisan research organization, and a poll directed by National Public Radio, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

    The two polls tell similar – and familiar – stories. "Americans are concerned about the long-term future of Social Security and want to make some changes to the system now," NPR/Kaiser/Harvard analysts wrote in a summary of findings. "They are most interested in plans to invest some of their Social Security payments themselves, but they are unwilling to make difficult changes like reducing benefits and raising the retirement age."

    "Americans are immensely concerned about the future of Social Security," says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of ADSS. "There is tension between the desire to maintain guaranteed benefits and to give people more control over investment decisions that can affect their future. But the overwhelming message from this poll is that Americans want lawmakers to move forward on reform. People will not accept inaction indefinitely."

    Few Americans doubt that Social Security is ailing. According to the ADSS survey, 57 percent of the public says the Social Security system is "heading for major trouble" and barely 9 percent say it is "secure and solid," analysts report.

    A large majority – 58 percent – say Congress and the president should decide now "about changes to Social Security and not wait until after the 2000 elections." But the ADSS poll suggests that few Americans expect their elected leaders to do anything soon: Seven in 10 say policymakers in Washington "don't really understand how people like you feel" about reforming Social Security.

    In April, 1,001 randomly selected adults were interviewed by Princeton Survey Research Associated for the ADSS survey. In March, 1,203 randomly selected adults were interviewed by ICR/International Communications Research for the NPR/Kaiser/Harvard survey. Margin of sampling error for both surveys is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

    Both surveys find strong support for loosening restrictions on how Social Security funds are used. Two-thirds of those interviewed in the NPR/Kaiser/Harvard poll say they favor "partial privatization," which would allow people to have individual accounts and make their own investments with a portion of their Social Security payments.

    "Even when they are told that investing in the stock market will mean 'getting more money if their investments do well and less if they do poorly,' 57 percent still favor it," analysts wrote. "However, Americans want to hedge their bets – 57 percent oppose allowing people to invest all of their Social Security taxes on their own."

    And there's not much support for letting the government play the stock market with Americans' Social Security money: 61 percent say they're opposed to the idea while 38 percent support it.

    There's little appetite for raising the minimum age that Americans may begin collecting full retirement benefits. Three in four interviewed in the ADSS survey oppose raising the age for full benefits to 70. That's virtually identical to the 67 percent who expressed a similar view in the NPR/Kaiser/Harvard poll.

    Somewhat fewer Americans are opposed to trimming some benefits, the ADSS poll found. More than half of those interviewed – 53 percent – oppose cutting the cost-of-living increase to Social Security recipients, while 40 percent say they favor it.

    Social Security remains the third rail of American politics – touch it and chances are good you'll die.

    "A substantial number of Americans are prepared to vote against their representatives in Congress if they cut benefits (47 percent), raise the retirement age (41 percent), or increase the Social Security payroll tax (37 percent)," NPR/Kaiser/Harvard analysts wrote.

    There's widespread suspicion that government is pilfering at least a portion of the public's retirement nest egg, the NPR/Kaiser/Harvard poll found. When asked why Social Security is in financial trouble, two in three say it is because "money in the Social Security trust fund is being spent on programs other than Social Security."

    There's also widespread ignorance about the system. "For instance, even though a substantial number of Americans will receive more in Social Security benefits than they pay into the system, 53 percent of Americans believe that most people receive less," NPR/Kaiser/Harvard researchers found. "Most Americans (52 percent) believe that the share of Americans over 65 who live in poverty has increased compared to 30 years ago; only 18 percent know it actually has decreased."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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