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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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.

AP-GfK: Poll shows divide over increasing money for transit

WASHINGTON (AP) — A slight majority of Americans prefer living in a single-family house in the suburbs or a rural area with more land, even if it means driving long distances to get to work or run errands, according to a poll by The Associated Press-GfK.

However, a significant minority, 44 percent, would choose an apartment or smaller house in an urban area that comes with a short drive to work or the opportunity to use public transportation, bike or walk. The split also has a political aspect: Sixty-seven percent of Republicans and 53 percent of independents prefer suburban or rural living, while 55 percent of Democrats prefer urban areas.

The share of Americans who prefer suburban or rural living — 53 percent — is identical to the share who say the government should increase spending to build and improve roads, bridges and interstate highways. About 1 in 3 think current spending levels are about right, while just over 1 in 10 would like to see less money spent on roads.

Many states are struggling just to maintain current spending levels, and Congress has been unable to come up with a long-term plan to pay for highway aid that closes the gap between current spending and federal gas tax revenue.

Americans are more divided over building and improving public transportation such as rail and bus systems. Four in 10 say spending on public transportation should be increased, but just as many say current spending is about right. Only 18 percent say transit spending should be cut.

Contrary to the widely held notion that the millennial generation is flocking to cities and giving up their cars, younger people are not significantly more or less likely than older people to prefer urban living with a shorter commute and access to public transit, the poll found.

Matthew Wild, 33, an airline pilot living in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, said he favors increasing spending on both public transit and highways. The region’s freeways “take a real beating” from the traffic and need to be maintained, he said, but no new lanes should be added.

“We definitely don’t need to be expanding freeways anymore,” Wild said. “We’ve maxed out.”

He cited a highway near his home that was recently widened and now is as full as ever. He does, however, strongly support building more light rail transit locally and high-speed rail between California cities.

Wild said he’d much rather take a convenient local train than fight traffic in his car. He currently takes trains only a few times a year because there are no direct routes from where he lives to the places he wants to go, and indirect routes take too long, he said.

“The big problem with L.A. is that, given the lack of public transportation, sitting in traffic in your own car is still faster than taking public transit,” Wild said.

Jane McEntire, 62, who lives in Cartersville, Georgia, on the northwest fringe of the Atlanta metropolitan area, says traffic is horrible and getting worse.

Even so, she’d rather keep spending on roads and cut spending on public transportation. She says she’s lost confidence in the ability of state and local transportation officials to make improvements and not fritter money away on wasteful projects.

She is particularly incensed that officials used federal transit aid to build a slow-moving streetcar line in downtown Atlanta that is used primarily by tourists.

“I think they look really cute, but as far as usefulness — no,” she said. “When you have federal dollars that are coming into a state that are available and you spend it on these cars in Atlanta that go six or eight blocks back and forth … Why didn’t they take that money and spend it on something to help commuters?”

The AP-GfK Poll of 1,077 adults was conducted online from April 23 to 27 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 3.4 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 Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy


AP-GfK Poll: Many approve Iran deal; Most don’t trust Tehran
WASHINGTON (AP) — Many Americans like the idea of the preliminary deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear program but very few people really believe Tehran will follow through with the agreement.

An Associated Press-GfK poll finds that just 3 percent said they were very confident that Iran would allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, remove plutonium from the country and shut down close to half of its uranium-enriching centrifuges as the preliminary deal says would be required. Nearly seven in 10 people said they were not confident, while 25 percent said they were only moderately confident.

The U.S., Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China are aiming to finalize a deal with Iran by June 30 that puts limits on Iranian programs that could be used to make nuclear arms. In exchange, economic sanctions on Iran would be lifted over time. Tehran denies any interest in such weapons but is negotiating in hopes of relief from billions of dollars in economic sanctions.

The next round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers will start Tuesday in Vienna.

Although more than half of Americans polled say they approve of making the deal, few people — 16 percent — are actually paying close attention to the complex Iran negotiations that have angered Israel and unnerved Gulf nations who are concerned about Tehran’s rising influence and aggressive behavior in the region.

The Senate last week passed legislation that would give Congress time to vote to reject any deal before sanctions are lifted. President Barack Obama would retain the right to veto lawmakers’ disapproval.

Israel’s strong objections to the deal could make a difference to many Americans. If forced to choose, a majority say it’s more important to maintain the U.S. relationship with Israel than to strike a deal with Iran. But respondents are divided along party lines, with nearly six in 10 Democrats saying the Iran deal is more important while seven in 10 Republicans believe ties with Israel are more critical.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the harshest critics of the deal with Iran. Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat, citing hostile Iranian rhetoric toward the Jewish state, Iran’s missile capabilities and its support for violent militant groups.

More broadly, the poll found that Americans are increasingly interested in the U.S. role in world affairs, with 60 percent saying it’s an extremely important issue, up from 52 percent less than five months ago. Slightly more people also approve of Obama’s handling of the issue, increasing from 38 percent in December to 42 percent in the latest poll. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue.

But overall, Americans are more likely to trust Republicans than Democrats to handle protecting the country.

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,077 adults was conducted online April 23-27, 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 3.4 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