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Poll: Most Favor Social Security Privatization
By Laura McCallum
July 14, 2000
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A new poll shows most Minnesotans worry Social Security won't be there for them when they retire, and many want to use the federal budget surplus to shore up the program. The poll conducted for Minnesota Public Radio, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and KARE-11 TV also finds nearly half of those polled want to let workers put some of their Social Security money into the stock market.

See complete poll.
NEARLY THREE-QUARTERS OF THE 620 Minnesota voters polled last week are either very or somewhat concerned about the financial stability of Social Security.

Barb Loida, 38, of St. Paul, who was surveyed by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, says Congress should use a projected budget surplus of $2 trillion over the next decade to protect the program. "It's like when we get the rebates back at the state level," she says. "A couple hundred dollars every year in somebody's pocket really isn't going to make that much of a difference. I think they could be taking the larger chunks of sums of money and actually dedicating it to certain issues or ideas that are going to further things in the long term."

Thirty-six percent of poll respondents agreed with Loida on using the federal surplus to shore up Social Security. The poll's margin of error is plus- or minus-four percentage points. The second-most-popular response was using the surplus for tax cuts, followed by reducing the national debt, and spending the money on education and other programs.

But men and women differed significantly on how to handle a surplus. Nearly half of the women polled want to use the surplus for Social Security, while only a quarter of men do.

University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, an expert on Social Security polls, says that response reflects a national trend. "Women tend to be more concerned about the collective national benefits of government programs more than men," says Jacobs.

The poll demonstrates another gender gap on the question of how to keep Social Security financially solvent. Nearly half of men polled want to allow wage earners to invest part of their Social Security taxes in stocks, as both Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and Republican Senator Rod Grams have proposed. Women aren't quite as interested in the idea, although 33-year-old Kimberly Hogan of Minneapolis says she would support it, based on her experience working for a bank with operations in Chile, a nation that successfully privatized its pension program 20 years ago.

"You know how much you're earning, and so you have the choice to say, 'This isn't the way I want to do it.' And the government regulates it so it's pretty safe, so it's not like just throwing your money into Internet stocks or anything like that."

Privatizing a portion of Social Security was the most popular poll response of the four options for fixing the system. Second was requiring the federal government to match part of Americans' private retirement investments - a plan Vice President Al Gore has proposed. That was followed by raising the retirement age and means testing that would reduce benefits for wealthy retirees.

The responses appear to contradict other polls that show Minnesotans are wary of privatizing Social Security. But the U of M's Larry Jacobs says that's because this poll leaves out important background on the issue. "I do not think this is a ringing endorsement of privatization. I think it suggests that about 40-percent of Minnesotans are open to the idea of allowing workers to invest their Social Security funds, but that's without considering the cost and the risk of doing so. We know from other polling in Minnesota and nationally that those concerns lead Americans and Minnesotans to be opposed to that option."

The biggest proponent of privatization in Minnesota - Republican Senator Rod Grams - wants to privatize about 80 percent of Social Security taxes, compared to presidential candidate George Bush's proposed 16 percent. Grams' plan would protect benefits for current retirees, but it doesn't make the same guarantee for future generations. Grams says when he has the chance to explain his plan at a town hall meeting, Minnesotans support it.

"I ask for many seniors to raise the hand and say, 'How many of you are satisfied with your Social Security check?' Not many are. Not after paying in a lifetime of work do they expect those small checks. And I ask, 'Are these the checks you want to pass on to your children and grandchildren?', and they say no."

The U of M's Larry Jacobs says that's because Americans like the notion of having more control over their contributions to social security. But when asked about the system in general, Jacobs says they tend to advocate sticking with Social Security as they know it, in nearly every poll. Still, this poll is likely to give Grams some ammunition as he stumps for his privatization plan. All of the DFLers in the race oppose it.