During MSNBC's coverage of President Bush's inauguration, radio host and MSNBC contributor and analyst Monica Crowley (formerly of FOX News), made the misleading claim that "people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, are very enthusiastic about the idea of controlling some of their own [Social Security] money and not allowing the government to do it for them." But a Media Matters for America analysis of six recent polls that examine the issue suggests that younger Americans' support for private accounts is not as clear as Crowley claimed: (1) some polls indicate a significant drop in support for privatization among all age groups when the potential realities of such a system -- decreased guaranteed benefits and $2 trillion in transition costs -- are included in the questions; and (2) some polls also show that there is far less support for private accounts among those in their 30s and 40s as compared to workers aged 18-29.
Two recent polls -- a TIME magazine/SRBI poll conducted January 12-13 and a National Annenberg Election Survey conducted January 11-16 -- indicate that initial support for private accounts among younger workers drops significantly when respondents are informed that a diversion of worker taxes into private accounts could cost an estimated $2 trillion over the next decade. According to the TIME/SRBI poll, while 50 percent of respondents aged 18-34 support "changing Social Security to allow people to invest part of [their] Social Security payroll tax in stocks and bonds," only 21 percent favor and 73 percent oppose such a measure "if the government had to borrow up to two trillion dollars in the next ten years to pay for it." Similarly, the Annenberg study noted that while workers aged 18-29 (by 51 percent to 46 percent) and aged 30-44 (by 60 percent to 35 percent) support "[r]educ[ing] both promised benefits and current taxes by allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market," both age groups oppose private accounts (by 62 percent to 37 percent and by 50 percent to 42 percent, respectively) if the government had to borrow "as much as two trillion dollars."
On a related note, a Los Angeles Times poll conducted January 15-17 showed a dramatic decrease in support for private accounts if they involve a reduction in guaranteed Social Security benefits. As Times staff writer Ronald Brownstein noted in a January 18 article detailing the poll's findings, "among all age groups, support fell sharply when adults were asked if they would still endorse creating the accounts if that required reductions in the guaranteed benefits retirees receive from Social Security."
Other polls showed that respondents aged 18-29 supported private accounts at different levels than those in their 30s and 40s. While the Los Angeles Times provided only excerpts of the poll, it indicated that when respondents were asked about private accounts without noting the accompanying reduction in guaranteed benefits of such a plan, "[m]ore than three out of five respondents aged 18 to 29 approved." However, the poll also noted that respondents aged 30-44 "disapproved" of such accounts, even without mentioning reduced guaranteed benefits. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll conducted January 7-9 indicated that, while respondents in the 18-29 age group consider private accounts a "good idea" by 54 percent to 42 percent, those aged 30-49 oppose such accounts by 53 percent to 41 percent.
A poll by the Pew Research Center -- conducted January 5-9 -- indicated a conflicting trend in the levels of support within the 20-40 age group for changing Social Security that conflicted with the Times and USA Today/CNN/Gallup polls. While the poll did not specifically examine how support for private accounts differs by age group, it did study the view of different age groups on the need to make significant changes to the Social Security system. According to the poll, 50 percent of respondents aged 18-29 believe only "minor changes" are required, 32 percent feel "major changes" are needed, and 16 percent feel the Social Security system "needs to be rebuilt"; the percentage of 18- to 29-year-old respondents who see only minor changes required was larger than for any other age group except those over 65. For respondents aged 30-44, 40 percent envision "minor changes," 40 percent "major changes," and 17 percent believe the system must be "rebuilt."
Finally, while a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed strong support for private accounts among both those aged 18-30 and those aged 31-44, the poll also indicated strong disapproval of President Bush's handling of Social Security. According to the poll, 71 percent of respondents aged 18-30 support letting "workers put some of their Social Security savings into stocks or bonds" compared to 26 percent who oppose it, with 65 percent supporting such a measure and 32 percent opposing it among respondents aged 30-44. When such a system's corresponding "reduction in the rate of growth in Social Security benefits for future retirees" is factored in, 72 percent of the 18-30 age group and 59 percent of the 31-44 age group either "strongly" or "somewhat" support private accounts.
Yet the same poll shows that those aged 18-29 "disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling Social Security" by 60 percent compared to 33 percent who approve, and those aged 31-44 oppose Bush's handling of the system by 50 percent to 41 percent. Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation joint fellow Ruy Teixeira offers an explanation for why the Washington Post/ABC poll "reports markedly more positive results for that plan [private accounts] than almost all recent polls." He writes that the wording of the Post/ABC poll lends itself to greater support for private accounts: "The change in the guaranteed benefit that is mentioned in the Washington Post/ABC questions is not described as a cut in the guaranteed benefit but rather as 'a reduction in the rate of growth in Social Security benefits for future retirees' -- a question wording that no doubt elicited broad smiles down at the White House and in the offices of congressional Republican leaders."