Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Reform Social Security -- Check Yes or No ... or Maybe?

Public Agenda Alert -- Feb. 3, 2005

* Bush Launches Campaign for Social Security Plan

* Bush Launches Campaign for Social Security Plan

President Bush is following up his State of the Union speech with a five-state tour to campaign for his plan to revamp Social Security. The president's plan to allow people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts was the centerpiece of his speech and is likely to be the most bitterly contested proposal facing the new Congress.

Surveys on Social Security show many of the classic warning signs of unsettled public opinion, where the public has yet to reach firm conclusions. There are many conflicting and inconsistent findings in surveys on questions ranging from the urgency of the problem, people's expectations for their financial future and their views on investing their Social Security taxes in stocks.

Although majorities tell survey researchers that they believe the Social Security program is in trouble, few can agree on proposed ideas for changing it. About half of Americans say the government needs to make changes to the system sooner than later, but other legislative issues such as Iraq, terrorism, education, health care costs and the economy rank even higher.

While government statistics show Social Security is the main source of income for seniors today, majorities of non-retired Americans believe they will rely mostly on their own savings and Social Security will be a minor source of income. Younger Americans are notably less likely to be concerned about their retirement finances, however, they are more likely to say Social Security will no longer be available to them by the time they retire. Although less than one-quarter of Americans believe Social Security will be able to pay them full benefits when they retire, majorities say they're confident about having enough money to live comfortably. Yet surveys find few have calculated how much money they will actually need.

Public opinion on proposals to allow individuals to invest some of their Social Security contributions is also uncertain and unsettled. Prior to the State of the Union, very few Americans said they had heard a lot about this idea. In addition, support wavers when questions are rephrased or include new aspects of the issue, usually a signal that people either do not understand a proposal or have not thought carefully about its implications.

Some poll questions find majorities support a stock-market option.

But support declines when questions refer to possible risks, such as the unpredictability of the stock market, reduced benefits and the possibility of the government borrowing trillions to set up the program. Similarly, the number of Americans who say they would personally invest some of their Social Security tax contributions declines when the question refers to the risk of lower benefits. And a survey of investors finds their support for the proposal has significantly declined since 2000. If the proposal were to become law, four in 10 Americans seem to believe it would have no effect on them.

At least one overnight poll conducted by CNN/USA Today/Gallup found a substantial majority believe President Bush made a convincing case for his plan. But it's important to note that overnight surveys are less reliable than surveys taken over several days, for two basic reasons: First, polls conducted entirely in one night reflect people's top-of-the-head responses, which can change after they have had some time to think through an issue. The other reason is that pollsters can only question people they can reach in that one night.

And at that hour, it all depends on who is answering their phone, who is home and who watched the speech. Overnight polls are just skimming the surface compared to polls over a longer period that are able to reach a more representative group of people.

For more on these areas of uncertainty, read our Red Flags on Social Security:

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