Poll: Few See Crisis in Social Security

Americans show less interest than planners have predicted in participating in a stock market option for Social Security investments, raising questions about whether the program would work as effectively as its proponents suggest.

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates the option also faces other, earlier hurdles: Support for the plan drops sharply if it means the government would have to borrow up to $2 trillion to finance the changeover, as authorities have estimated. And just a quarter of Americans agree with President Bush's portrayal of the Social Security system as in crisis -- making it more difficult to raise support for fundamental change.

The poll finds 53 percent of Americans do support a voluntary stock market option for Social Security, a number that's held steady since 2001 after slipping when the market bubble burst. But if it means $2 trillion in borrowing, support drops by more than half, to 24 percent.

Moreover, 62 percent say that if such a program did exist, they wouldn't participate in it. That leaves 37 percent who say they would put some of their Social Security money into the stock market -- far below the 67 percent participation planners have anticipated.

Among the minority who say they would participate, eight in 10 say they'd invest "some" or a "just a little" of their Social Security funds in the market. Just 19 percent say they'd put in all or most of their available assets.

Participation

Intended participation in a stock market option is highest among wealthier and better-educated adults and peaks in particular among Republican men; 64 percent say they'd put some Social Security money in the market, compared with 46 percent of Republican women and just about a quarter of Democrats, men or women.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

Even among younger Americans, who are least confident in receiving their full Social Security benefits, fewer than half say they'd participate in a stock market option.

One likely reason for the low intended participation is that in the past, most Americans have viewed the stock market as a "risky" investment -- as low as 52 percent during the last market bubble, but as high as 80 percent after that bubble burst.

Analysts have suggested that one means of encouraging participation would be to include a stick along with the carrot -- effectively cutting benefits for those who remain with the current system by tying future benefit increases to inflation, rather than to wages. But this poll raises questions as to whether even that would work, since people who do not expect to receive their full benefits from Social Security are no more likely to say they'd invest in the market than those who do expect a full payout of their benefits.

Participation rates are hypothetical because the specifics of the plan are far from set -- Bush said Monday he would detail his proposal "at the appropriate time." But the results of this survey suggest substantial tasks for the administration: one, getting most people to support its plan in the face of its price tag; another, then getting more than a minority actually to participate, and to do so to a significant extent.

Bush thus far shows little traction on the issue: Americans disapprove of his handling of Social Security by 52 percent to 38 percent, very close to his career worst, 55 percent to 38 percent disapproval last March.

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