By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press 

WASHINGTON (AP) — Most Americans say go ahead and raise taxes if it will save Social Security benefits for future generations. And raise the retirement age, if you have to.

Both options are preferable to cutting monthly benefits, even for people who are years away from applying for them.

Those are the findings of a new Associated Press-GfK poll on public attitudes toward the nation’s largest federal program.

Social Security is facing serious long-term financial problems. When given a choice on how to fix them, 53 percent of adults said they would rather raise taxes than cut benefits for future generations, according to the poll. Just 36 percent said they would cut benefits instead.

The results were similar when people were asked whether they would rather raise the retirement age or cut monthly payments for future generations — 53 percent said they would raise the retirement age, while 35 percent said they would cut monthly payments.

“Right now, it seems like we’re taxed so much, but if that would be the only way to go, I guess I’d have to be for it to preserve it,” said Marge Youngs, a 77-year-old widow from Toledo. “It’s extremely important to me. It’s most of my income.”

Social Security is being hit by a wave of millions of retiring baby boomers, leaving relatively fewer workers to pay into the system. The trustees who oversee the massive retirement and disability program say Social Security’s trust funds will run out of money in 2033. At that point, Social Security will only collect enough tax revenue to pay 75 percent of benefits, unless Congress acts.

Lawmakers from both political parties say there is a good chance Congress will address Social Security in the next year or two — if the White House takes the lead. Yet so far, Social Security has not played a big role in the presidential election.

In previous polls, Democrats have typically scored better than Republicans on handling Social Security. But the AP-GfK poll shows Americans are closely divided on which presidential candidate they trust to handle the issue.

Forty-seven percent said they trust President Barack Obama to do a better job on Social Security, and 44 percent said they trust his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. The difference is within the poll’s margin of sampling error.

Charles McSwain, 69, of Philadelphia, said he trusts Obama because he thinks the president is more likely to stick up for the middle class.

“He at least gives the appearance of trying to help people that aren’t super rich, and Romney doesn’t,” said McSwain, who works part time selling real estate.

But Jeff Victory of Nashville, Tenn., worries that Obama doesn’t have the stomach to cut benefits to help rein in the program.

“Barack has already shown he’s going to give anything free out to everyone he possibly can, so I’m going to have to go with Romney on that one,” said Victory, a 26-year-old electrician.

Romney has said he favors gradually increasing the retirement age, but he opposes tax increases to shore up Social Security. For future generations, Romney would slow the growth of benefits “for those with higher incomes.”

Obama hasn’t laid out a detailed plan for addressing Social Security. But during the 2008 campaign, he called for applying the Social Security payroll tax to wages above $250,000. It is now limited to wages below $110,100, a level that increases with inflation.

Obama says any changes to Social Security should be done “without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable or people with disabilities, without slashing benefits for future generations and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.”

Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has been a leading proponent in Congress of allowing workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into personal investment accounts. Romney has not fully embraced the idea, but Democrats are using it to accuse Republicans of trying to privatize Social Security.

Romney put Ryan on the ticket Aug. 11. The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Aug. 16-20.

About 56 million people get Social Security benefits. Monthly payments average $1,236 for retirees.

The options for fixing Social Security fall into two broad categories — raising taxes or cutting benefits, or some combination of the two. But there are many options within each category. For example, raising the retirement age is a benefit cut for future generations, because they would have to wait longer to qualify for full benefits.

Retirees now can qualify for full benefits at age 66, a threshold that is rising to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.

In previous polls, most of the options for addressing Social Security scored poorly among the public, which helps explain why Congress hasn’t embraced them. But the AP-GfK poll forced people to make a choice: Raise taxes or cut benefits? Raise the retirement age or cut monthly payments?

Democrats, Republicans and independents all favored raising the retirement age over cutting monthly payments. But there was a big divide on raising taxes. Sixty-five percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents supported higher taxes, compared with just 38 percent of Republicans.

“Raising taxes, especially on the people that provide the jobs for us, is not an option because what you do there, you discourage promoting jobs,” said James Taylor, a 68-year-old retiree from Golden, Miss.

But Juan Tellez, a 22-year-old college student in Gainesville, Fla., said he would accept higher taxes if it means preserving benefits, even though he’s not very confident Social Security will be around for his generation.

“I think of Social Security as an investment, as a public investment almost, something more communal,” Tellez said. “I feel like I would want to invest in that.”

About three-quarters of the public believe Social Security is an important issue, though there is no consensus about whether people will be able to rely on it throughout their retirement. Only 30 percent said it was very likely or extremely likely they will be able to rely on Social Security.

Among people younger than 35, just 20 percent believe Social Security will provide income throughout their retirement, while 55 percent of people 65 and older said the same.

“I’m not planning on it at all, honestly,” said Victory, the 26-year-old electrician.

The poll involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,006 adults nationwide. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

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AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed this report.

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Online:

How would you fix Social Security? http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/social-security/

AP-GfK poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Keep up with the AP Social Security series on Twitter: http://apne.ws/NRmPSQ

Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap

Follow Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jennagiesta

How the poll was conducted

The Associated Press-GfK Poll on Social Security was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from August 16-20. It is based on landline and cellphone telephone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,006 adults. Interviews were conducted with 604 respondents on landline telephones and 402 on cellular phones.

Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cellphone numbers.

Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population’s makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use _ landline only, cell only and both types _ by region.

No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 3.9 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in the U.S. were polled.

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com.

Kayla Mueller’s brother: Swap with Taliban raised IS demands

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — The brother of an American woman who was killed after spending months as a hostage of Islamic State militants says Kayla Mueller’s situation worsened after the government traded five Taliban commanders for a captive U.S. soldier.

The militants increased their demands after the May swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Eric Mueller told NBC’s “Today” in an interview that aired Monday.

“That made the whole situation worse because that’s when the demands got greater,” he said. “They got larger. They realized that they had something.”

Mueller’s death was confirmed Feb. 10 by her family and U.S. officials. The Islamic State group claimed she died in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials have not confirmed that. The Pentagon said it didn’t know how she was killed.

The 26-year-old international aid worker, who grew up in Prescott, Arizona, was captured in August 2013 after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

Mueller’s brother and parents spoke to “Today” host Savannah Guthrie. The family has declined repeated requests for an interview with The Associated Press.

Mueller’s father, Carl Mueller, said that the United States’ willingness to swap for Bergdahl but not pay ransom or allow ransom to be paid for his daughter “was pretty hard to take.”

“I actually asked the president that question when we were in the White House,” he said without elaborating.

Mueller’s parents said in the interview that the U.S. government put policy ahead of American lives.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the Mueller family had been put in a difficult position by the U.S. policy against making concessions to terrorists, but he defended it as being in the best interests of the nation.

“The president is confident that his administration did do everything that was possible within the confines of that policy — using our military might, using our intelligence capability, using our diplomatic influence — to try to secure the safe release and return of Kayla Mueller,” Earnest said.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that only 3 in 10 Americans think the United States should pay a ransom to save an American hostage overseas, even if it’s the only way to rescue the hostage. A quarter of Americans say there are circumstances when the United States should directly negotiate with a terrorist group.

The poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The Obama administration has defended the Bergdahl swap. Some U.S. lawmakers were outraged by the exchange of five Taliban commanders held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for the Idaho native who left his post in Afghanistan and was captured and held by the Taliban for five years.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously supported the exchange, insisting that the United States has a sacred commitment to men and women who serve that it never will leave anyone behind on the battlefield.


AP-GfK Poll: Most back Obama plan to raise investment taxes

WASHINGTON (AP) — The rich aren’t taxed enough and the middle class is taxed too much. As for your taxes, you probably think they’re too high as well.

Those are the results of an Associated Press-GfK poll that found that most people in the United States support President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise investment taxes on high-income families.

The findings echo the populist messages of two liberal senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — being courted by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to run for president in 2016. The results also add weight to Obama’s new push to raise taxes on the rich and use some of the revenue to lower taxes on the middle class.

Obama calls his approach “middle-class economics.”

It’s not flying with Republicans in Congress, who oppose higher taxes.

But Bob Montgomery of Martinsville, Virginia, said people with higher incomes should pay more.

“I think the more you make the more taxes you should pay,” said Montgomery, who is retired after working 40 years at an auto dealership. “I can’t see where a man makes $50,000 a year pays as much taxes as somebody that makes $300,000 a year.”

According to the poll, 68 percent of those questioned said wealthy households pay too little in federal taxes; only 11 percent said the wealthy pay too much.

Also, 60 percent said middle-class households pay too much in federal taxes, while 7 percent said they paid too little.

Obama laid out a series of tax proposals as part of his 2016 budget released this month. Few are likely to win approval in the Republican-controlled Congress. But if fellow Democrats were to embrace his ideas, they could play a role in the 2016 race.

One proposal would increase capital gains taxes on households making more than $500,000. In the survey, 56 percent favored the proposal, while only 16 percent opposed it.

Democrats, at 71 percent, were the most likely to support raising taxes on capital gains. Among Republicans and independents, 46 percent supported it.

Obama’s other tax plans didn’t fare as well.

About 27 percent said they favored making estates pay capital gains taxes on assets when they are inherited, and 36 percent opposed it.

Just 19 percent said they supported the president’s aborted plan to scale back the tax benefits of popular college savings plans, 529 accounts, named after a section in federal tax law. Obama withdrew the proposal after Republicans and some Democrats in Congress opposed it.

“I think that’s a poor idea,” said Jamie Starr of suburban Atlanta. “Being that I’m a mother of five children, that is a wonderful program.”

“That’s kids trying to make their own away in this world without having student loans,” she said.

Obama’s proposal to levy a new tax on banks was supported by 47 percent of those surveyed. Only 13 percent opposed it, while 36 percent were undecided.

It’s tax season, that time of the year when people are confronted by their obligations to the government. The poll found that 56 percent of us think our own federal taxes are too high, and 4 percent said they pay too little.

If taxes are increased, a slight majority said the additional money should help pay down the national debt. Using the money to cut other taxes or fund government programs were less popular options.

Republicans, in general, are more likely than Democrats to oppose higher taxes, except when it comes to low-income families.

Only 19 percent of respondents said low-income families pay too little in federal taxes, but there was a significant split between the political parties. Just 10 percent of Democrats said low-income families pay too little, while 33 percent of Republicans said they don’t pay enough.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the poorest 20 percent of households paid less than 1 percent of all federal taxes in 2011, the latest year for data. The top 10 percent paid more than half of all federal taxes.

That’s OK, said Sen. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, because wealthy people have seen their incomes soar while the rest of the country’s wages have been much more flat.

“Most people understand that at a time when the rich are becoming much richer, the middle class is continuing to disappear,” Sanders said. “And people also understand that the very wealthy and large corporations are able to take advantage of huge loopholes, which enable them not to pay their fair share of taxes.”

Obama has been pushing to raise taxes on the rich since his first campaign for president in 2008. He has had some success. In January 2013, Obama persuaded Republicans in Congress to let income tax rates go up for families making more than $450,000 a year. It was part of a deal that made permanent a large package of tax cuts first enacted under Republican President George W. Bush.

Some liberals are looking for a candidate to push for higher taxes on the rich in the 2016 race. Sanders and Democrat Warren would fit the profile, though Warren says she is not running for president and Sanders says he has not made up his mind.

Among Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen as the front-runner for the nomination; she has yet to make her candidacy official.

Clinton hasn’t offered specifics on how she would approach taxes as a candidate. But she offered a glimpse of her views following Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, when she tweeted that Obama “pointed way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare.”

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap