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WASHINGTON — Most Americans continue to highly value Social Security's guaranteed benefits despite recent debate over adding private accounts, a poll released Thursday by the senior advocacy group AARP shows.
AARP, the nation's largest group for elderly residents, looked at perceptions about Social Security from 1985, when the group first took the survey, and in 1995 and in July.
Over that period, however, it found a slight, sustained increase in the number of people who say they believe the program should be phased out and that private retirement plans would be better. In 1985, the poll showed that 9 percent of those surveyed believed it, and in 1995 that number jumped to 13 percent and stayed at 12 percent in 2005.
AARP's position was clear Thursday at a 70th anniversary celebration for Social Security: "Strengthen it. Don't destroy it. No private accounts carved out of Social Security."
Many who attended the event on the hot August morning at the Capitol Hill rally took refuge under white umbrellas that bore the slogan and wore T-shirts, buttons and stickers with the "Strengthen it" message.
Of those surveyed, age 18 to seniors, about nine of 10 non-retirees believe Social Security should continue as a government program to assist retired people. The organization used independent research firm GFK NOP to survey 1,200 residents through random phone calls. The poll from July 18-26 included 929 non-retirees and 271 retired residents and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
One of the biggest differences between the 1995 and 2005 polls is how non-retirees responded to the question, "I feel that I should be putting money away (for) retirement, but I find that hard to do on my current income."
Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed in 1995 said this was the case, but that number dropped to 42 percent in July, despite a U.S. personal savings rate that fell to zero percent in June. About half those surveyed in 1985 said "yes."
The survey also showed that 54 percent of non-retirees would be willing to pay more in payroll taxes to ensure that Social Security is there when they retire. Fifty-five percent said they were confident they could do a lot better by investing the money paid into Social Security, while 44 percent disagreed and 1 percent was unsure.
However, 85 percent of non-retires said even though they might come out better investing on their own, they think it's important to continue to contribute to the program for the common good.
"In our efforts to provide security for all the American people, let us not allow ourselves to be misled by those who advocate shortcuts to Utopia or fantastic financial schemes," said Charles Leven, chairman of the AARP board of directors, quoting President Franklin Roosevelt. Referring to private account proposals in Congress mirroring a plan by President Bush, he said, "They do nothing to address the long-term solvency of Social Security. They would simply create a mountain of debt and pass the bill on to future generations."
Leven said almost 2 million AARP members have signed petitions to Congress stating they were against any plan that takes money away from Social Security and diverts it to private accounts.
But that wasn't the only message heard in the park. Young advocates calling for choice descended on the event raising signs showing their support for adding private accounts to Social Security.
"AARP is being really selfish. They are completely abandoning our generation, said Jonathan Swanson, a 22 year-old Yale University student with Students for Saving Social Security, a group that supports personal investment accounts. "Social Security will not affect people 55 or older, but it will affect us. Personal accounts are the only assurance that we will have a retirement of our own."
Nick Bouknight, a 22-year-old student [ed. note: graduate] of Villanova University, had a similar concern.
"I just want a chance to be able to invest some of my own money," said Bouknight, the communications coordinator with FreedomWorks, a group that advocates for lower taxes, less government and more economic freedom for Americans. "I just want to better my own life and have something for my kids."
But Hans Riemer, Washington director of Rock the Boat [ed. note: Rock the Vote], an organization dedicated to getting young people involved in the political process, opposes private accounts.
"As more young people find out about these proposals, the more young people learn about what it means to change Social Security from a safety net into a personal investment, the less they like it," he said. "When they find out about the benefits cuts that comes with private accounts, when they find out the debt that comes with private accounts and the risk to our safety net, they don't want anything to do with it."
Brent Wilkes, executive director with League of United Latin American citizens, spoke about the importance of Social Security benefits to the Hispanic community.
"Let's keep this great program going. We don't need to destroy it," he said.
Wilkes said the rapid growth of the Latino immigrant population has benefited the Social Security system because more Hispanics are paying into the program.
"If Social Security were eliminated today, 55 percent of Hispanic seniors would be in poverty," he said. "We just can't allow that."
Romaine Thomas, District of Columbia AARP president, said more than half of Social Security beneficiaries are women and the program is the primary source of retirement income for older women. Social Security is the only source of income for one of every three black women over age 65, she said.
"We must remember that Social Security wasn't designed just for retirement. It also provides valuable survivors' and disability benefits," Thomas said.