- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2005

A new survey shows American voters don’t have a solid understanding of how Social Security is financed, and the pollster says the survey shows those pushing for major changes to the program have failed to lay the groundwork for changes.

“Few voters fully grasp the nature and details of the Social Security program,” wrote pollster Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist. He cited one poll finding that 48 percent believe an actual trust fund holds their payroll taxes until they retire, and 68 percent of registered voters said Congress has a “legal obligation” to pay them Social Security benefits. His poll of 1,000 registered voters was taken March 16-18 and has a sampling error of 3.1 percentage points.

“The reformers, having come out of the box discussing concepts like solvency and insolvency … unintentionally fed the idea that the government is operating a trust fund,” Mr. McKenna said. “By allowing themselves to become tangled in the rhetoric of the status quo, they have ceded quite a bit to the other side.”

Nearly 90 percent of the people surveyed correctly identified the government as the owner of the Social Security funds, but when asked who should control and own the money, 55 percent said, “Me.” Among men under 55 years of age support was 64 percent, and it was 59 percent among women under 55.

Several recent polls have shown President Bush facing an uphill battle to gain support for his proposal to offer private investment accounts as part of Social Security. Despite Mr. Bush’s nationwide campaign to push his idea, a Pew Research Center poll taken March 17-21 found support for the president actually slipping, particularly among people aged 18-29.

“The more the president promotes his plan to privatize Social Security, the less support he has,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security, a coalition of unions and key liberal advocacy groups opposing Mr. Bush’s proposal.

Many of Mr. Bush’s allies have said the administration and Republicans in Congress have failed to pitch the proposal properly, and Mr. McKenna said his poll backs up those criticisms. He conducted the poll for several Republican Senate offices, though he said the offices wanted to remain unidentified because they and many other members of Congress are skittish about the issue.

Greg Crist, communications director for the House Republican Conference, said poll numbers such as Mr. McKenna’s are actually helping Republicans’ overall effort.

“Every time you raise awareness or you seed a question about the program, which we know is inherently flawed, that raises the question, ‘OK, congressman, how are you going to fix it?’” he said.

He said Republican House members were armed with details about Social Security’s finances as part of the education campaign expected to take place during the current two-week Easter recess, but he said not to expect them to push a bill when Congress reconvenes. “We knew even before these two weeks, from what our members were telling us, this was going to take several months,” he said.

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