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Voters on Bush’s Social Security Plan: Thanks, but No Thanks

A just-released poll of 2004 election voters by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO (no link currently available) has a host of useful data on voters’ attitudes toward Social Security privatization, including some very specific tests of their views toward Bush’s current plan for private accounts.

To begin with, the poll finds the public now evenly-split on whether they support (49 percent) or oppose (46 percent) the general idea of “a plan by which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market”. That's down from 64-31 in favor in a May, 2000 Washington Post poll.

The poll also, similar to the recent WSJ/NBC poll, gave respondents a major troubles, but not a crisis, option in their question on whether there is crisis in the financial situation of Social Security. The result here: just 26 percent say Social Security is in a “crisis”, with another 39 percent opting for a less apocalyptic major troubles assessment (another 32 percent say the system faces minor troubles or is basically secure).

The poll directly tested support for Bush's Social Security plan. Initially, before key features of the plan were rehearsed for voters, they said they opposed Bush's plan 46-39. And after voters heard about the plan's key features (workers age 55 and younger can place one-third of Social Security taxes in private accounts; guaranteed monthly benefit reduced by 30-50 percent, depending on whether they open such an account; no change in benefits for those 55 and over; and longterm Social Security funding shortfall eliminated, but government will have to borrow $2 trillion to cover transition costs), opposition rose to 54-40, with three times as many strong opposers (35 percent) as strong supporters (12 percent).

That opposition included 48-47 opposition even among those 18-34 (with each succeeding age group more opposed), 51-43 opposition among whites and 60-32 opposition among independents. Working class whites (arguably the group whose support is most critical to the GOP's tenuous electoral majority) were even more opposed (52-37) than whites in general and working class white women (where Bush made critical gains in 2004) opposed his plan 56-38.

Moreover, twice as many said they would punish a candidate who voted for Bush's plan (41 percent) than said they would reward (21 percent) such a candidate. And by 64-20, voters declared that Congress wait and develop a different plan for Social Security, rather than pass the Bush plan this year.

Of other options to strengthen Social Security, voters expressed the most support for tax-free retirement savings options, separate from Social Security (82 percent in favor). This result is consistent with a number of other recent polls.

Other popular options were having Congress repay the money it took from the Social Security trust fund (73 percent in favor) and repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent and giving the recovered revenue to Social Security (65 percent in favor).

The poll also tested a variety of different messages about the benefit cuts, deficit costs and potential for corruption intrinsic to the Bush plan and found a number of them to be very effective with persuadable voters.

Hart Research summed up what they learned from this message-testing and the general results of the poll as follows:

DON’T debate this at the level of philosophy --“ownership society” vs. “social insurance.” DO focus on the real, concrete harm to Americans’ retirement security done by the Bush plan.

DON’T get caught up in debating the size of the problem.
DO focus on how Bush plan makes problem worse and weakens Social Security.

DON’T focus all your attention on “risk” of accounts.
DO tell Americans about huge benefit cuts in plan....

Conclusions: Focusing Our Message

The Bush plan undermines retirement security by cutting guaranteed benefits 30% to 50%, even for those who don’t choose an account. Risky privatization accounts won’t make up the difference. Working people should get the benefits they paid for.

Social Security does face problems, but the Bush plan makes the problem worse and weakens Social Security by diverting trillions of dollars from the trust fund.

We can strengthen Social Security without slashing benefits:
Require Congress to pay back the money it has diverted from Social Security and create new opportunities for Americans to have tax-free savings for their retirement in addition to Social Security.



Polls have become meaningless to me after this last election. Where is the opposition? Where is the press? We need a strong, intelligent and vocal opposition that can frame all the issues that have been co-opted by these radical neo-cons and we need a strong, intelligent and vocal press with courage, principle and integrity enough to report the truth. Bush's fear-mongering about social security seems to be largely unchallenged by anybody. What is going on?