Economy

Top Democratic Pollster Says Don't Mess with Social Security -- Or Else Face the Wrath of Voters in 2014

"Don’t listen to anyone in the Beltway," says Celinda Lake.

Editor's note:America faces a retirement security crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. In a Capital Hill briefing last week, experts described how more than half of the 77 million baby boomers heading toward their mid-60s and older—especially women and people of color—have literally no retirement savings, and will fall into poverty as they age. The figure put on the so-called retirement deficit, or what it would take to keep people at their current living standards, was estimated to be between $12-$14 trillion. In contrast, the federal debt is now $17 trillion. The White House and the House GOP want to whittle away future Social Security increases to pay off the debt by using a more draconian inflation index called the chained CPI (consumer price index).

A growing coalition led by progressives in Congress and advocacy groups have begun to call for a new national conversation on Social Security. They reject the obsession on the federal debt as one-sided and say that Social Security can be fully financed and expanded by eliminating a tax break that caps Social Security taxes after the first $113,700 in income. This new conversation about Social Security was the focus of a daylong conference on Capitol Hill last week.

What follows are remarks by longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake on how Americans across the political spectrum want Social Security securely funded and expanded, including raising taxes to do that. Lake said this reframing will become a Democratic theme in 2014 and could become one of the biggest upcoming political issues, even though it is being ignored by the Washington establishment. 

Here are Celinda Lake’s remarks as transcribed by AlterNet:

“I want to tell you what real people think. First of all, Social Security is one of the most popular programs out there. It is wildly popular with the public. White men, who usually are not that good about government, love Social Security. They don’t want government to do anything to hurt their Social Security. Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike, are all wildly in favor of Social Security. And even young people, and we were some of the ones who did the original research that showed that millennials were more likely to believe in UFOs than believe that Social Security would be there when they retired, still like Social Security. And as they have spend more time in this economy, are more adamant about it, both because they see the impact it has on their grandparents and their parents, and also they see how really difficult it is to put retirement away.

“People believe overwhelmingly that Social Security has been good for the country, not bad for the country. We did some great work with Social Security Works and the task was how do we message successfully Social Security? My number-one answer, not facetiously, was keep out of the way. It’s a core value. It’s more popular than apple pie on the Fourth of July. We have to make sure that our messaging doesn’t diminish the strength for Social Security.

“My second point is, people think Social Security is completely unrelated to the deficit. They believe overwhelmingly that it’s a different pot of money. And it is a key way to keep this economy going—and a key way to avoid the deficit, to the extent that the deficit is produced by keeping people out of needing government services. If you want to keep people out of government services, you support strong Social Security.       

“People do think there should be some changes, but the kind of change matters. It used to be that Americans were all, yahoo, let’s go, change. And now people say, there’s good change and there’s bad change.... The number-one change that people want is to lift the cap [in which only the first $113,700 in income is taxed to pay for the program]. And when we first started going around with data on this—and it’s true in every state we polled, North Dakota, Montana, Alaska, every state—people want to lift the cap.

“Senate staffers come to us and say, "No one ever comes to us and says lift the cap." Well, no shit, Sherlock, no one knows there is a cap. Only 2 percent of women in America make over $106,000. So, of course, no one knows there is a cap. This is the biggest loophole that people didn’t know about in the tax structure.

“People are against raising the retirement age. And, actually, here’s the interesting news. This is why I love polling. People would think that the older you are, the more you are against raising the retirement age. Well, not at all. The older you are, the more you are convinced that you will be working until you are 85. The younger you are, the more you oppose raising the retirement age. Because, as one very eloquent African-American man said in our focus groups, “You mean I am going to have to work in this stinking economy longer?” And another young woman said, “If we don’t ever get these older people out of these jobs, we’ll never get permanent employment.”

“There is some support for means-testing [to be eligible for benefit]. But it depends on what means you are planning to test. People think, “Are you kidding me, $60,000, $40,000? That’s just ridiculous. We thought you meant like $200,000?” And finally, the CPI [consumer price index], people are completely opposed to the chained CPI [a new way to lower future benefit increases backed by House Republicans and President Obama]. People think the market basket [living costs] for seniors is more expensive than for ordinary people, because, one, they have more healthcare and more food and more energy in their market basket. And those are all things that are highly inflationary. No, their market basket should have a higher CPI, not a lower CPI.

“Don’t listen to anyone in the Beltway. Real people are wildly in favor of Social Security, wildly supportive of it. And this is a voting issue in 2014. We will have a record number of seniors [who are going to get] out to vote. And the senior vote is swinging back and forth between the two parties. This is going to be a very key issue and a very key vote. And it’s not, frankly, just for seniors. The people who will say to you that they are most worried about Social Security are not seniors, who feel that they will not outlive the changes. It’s people 50 to 64, particularly women 50 to 64, who just raided what little savings they had to help their kid get through college or buy a house or make up for that job that somebody lost in the last four years.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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