Election 2016

Almost Every Slice of American Society Wants To Strengthen Social Security Except Washington Insiders

Most Americans want better benefits, and they agree on how to pay for them.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) melpomene

As strengthening Social Security becomes a higher profile issue in a handful of toss-up U.S. Senate races, a new poll of likely 2014 voters in those states and nationwide finds overwhelming support to boost benefits by taxing all Americans equally.    

“We tested in this research the idea of increasing Social Security benefits and paying for that by having wealthy Americans pay the same [income tax] rate for Social Security as everyone else,” said Celinda Lake, who conducted the mid-August poll. “We’ve polled this in the past and we have seen this is consistently and overwhelmingly popular with voters. Seventy-nine percent of the voters in this poll supported that idea; 59 percent strongly. Only 21 percent opposed the idea.”

“To folks inside of Washington, that may come as a surprise,” said Eric Kingson, the co-founder of Social Security Works, one of the poll’s sponsors, and a Syracuse Univsersity professor of social work. “To folks outside, it’s not a surprise. And again, it is consistent with what other polls have shown, a willingness to even pay more to expand protections.”

“It’s consistent with the very real fears of Americans, that they’re facing a retirement income crisis in their own lives,” Kingson continued. “When they look around, they don’t have the pension protections they once had from employers. They’ve lost equity in their homes. Two-thirds are moving toward retirement where they don’t have sufficient funds to maintain their standard of living. So outside of Washington people are well-aware of that, and they ultimately turn to Social Security.”

Kingson’s comments and the poll, co-sponsored by Center for Community Change Action, comes as the national debate around Social Security is shifting. For many years, the conventional political wisdom in Washington, during the George W. Bush years and the Obama adminstration, has been that future Social Security cuts were inevitable due to the large number of Baby Boom generation retirees. That analysis was based on the assumption that the public would reject tax increases, hence a finite pie would be sliced thinner. That line of thinking was also accompanied by calls to privatize the program, which of couse, would result in a gigantic transfer of wealth to Wall St. via fees.

The issue of fortifying Social Security, which is funded by taxing the first $117,000 of income of all Americans, was seen in a handful of Senate races that are considered key to deciding whether the Republicans will emerge after November as the majority party. In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst, who has said privatization is one option, has run ads saying Democrat Bruce Braley supports raising the retirement age when benefits start—a visceral issue in a farm state where people wear out their bodies over a lifetime of hard work. Expanding Social Security has also been an issue raised by Democratic Senate candidates in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Arkansas.

Lake said her poll, which is consistent with other national surveys, found nearly four out of five voters want to preserve and expand Social Security by raising the income tax cap (currently the first $117,000 of earnings are taxed). 

“We rarely see data like this,” she said on a conference call. “It’s very exciting to have such a rich database of a national representative sample of 2014 voters and then so many states as well… This data builds on what we’ve been seeing in many, many of our polls, which is that retirement security is a top priority for voters heading into the midterm. And they are adamant about protecting Social Security and Medicare... We see that the levels of support for SS are such that it is really a value; it’s not a policy in people’s lives.”

“Among independents, the number was 73 percent support; 27 percent oppose,” Lake continued. “Among seniors, which make up 57 percent of the [likely] electorate this year, 82 percent support, only 18 percent oppose. There’s not a single demographic or political group that opposed this measure. It was strongly, strongly supported by Democrats, independents and Republicans; by every age group; by every gender.”

Fortifying or cutting Social Security was an issue that would drive people to vote, Lake said, adding that the polls found voters were more likely to punish candidates who would cut back the safety net rather than enhance it.

“What we also saw is that this is a voting issue for voters,” she said. “Sixty-three percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate wanting to expand Social Security; 16 percent said less likely. Among the swing independent voters, 56 percent said more likely; and 21 percent said less likely. And among seniors, 70 percent were more likely, and 12 percent were less likely.”

Lake said, “Every single demographic and political group voted to reward a candidate and member of Congress who voted for increasing Social Security benefits.” She said the opposite was also true, saying “people were in more of a punitive mood than a rewarding mood. Seventy percent said less likely; 42 said much less likely for a candidate that takes this position.”

“In all the states, the numbers were very very similar,” she said. “In Alaska, 76 percent (59 percent strongly) supported increasing the benefits by having everyone pay the same [tax] rate. Georgia, 78 percent supported; Iowa, 79 percent; Montana, 78 percent; New Hampshire, 79 percent; North Carolina, 80 percent; Oregon, 80 percent….In all of those states, it was over 90 percent of Democrats in favor, and two-thirds to three-quarters, strongly in favor. We had 70 to 80 percent of independents who were in favor, and we had Republicans ranging from 64 percent to 72 percent supporting it.”

Kingson said these results are not a surprise because the public knows and values Social Security. “Social Security has been doing what it is supposed to do for 80 years,” he said. “It provides basic protection against loss of income, loss of wages when people are disabled, or when people lose a parent, and in retirement. The American public understands this. We created it to provide this type of protection, and in recessions and in times of economic growth, in periods of peace and war, it’s done just that very consistently."

The poll also found that there is significant opposition to cutting back benefits, Kingson said. “That means raising the retirement ages further, or by reducing annual cost of living adjustments, or any other cuts.”

“What do I take away from this?” he pondered. “As Celinda says, this is a critical issue in the forthcoming election. Two, politicians—Democratic or Republican—will do well to support expanding Social Security. This is a core concern of the American people. Three, politicans seen as supporting cuts should be prepared to pay a price, and very likely a major price in lost votes. And finally, Social Security remains as it should, an immensly popular and deeply valued institution across all groups, which has worked, and which we will maintain going into the future.”

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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