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.

AP-GfK Poll: Most say the US is heading the wrong way, hope for new direction come November

By JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has checked out, and the American people have noticed.

Three-quarters of Americans doubt the federal government will address the important problems facing the country this year, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

All told, only 28 percent of Americans think the nation is heading in the right direction, the lowest level in August of an election year since 2008. It’s about on par with 2006, when Democrats took control of the U.S. House amid a backlash to the Iraq war.

This time around, it’s not clear whether either party will benefit from the disaffection.

One-third say they hope the Republicans take control of Congress outright this fall — which the GOP can accomplish with a net gain of six seats in the U.S. Senate while holding the U.S. House. The same share want to see Democrats lead Congress — a far less likely possibility.

The final third? They say it just doesn’t matter who takes control of Congress.

Overall, just 13 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress overall is handling its job.

There are some signs in the new poll that Republicans have gained ground as the height of the campaign approaches. In May, they trailed Democrats a bit on who ought to control Congress. Partisans are about equally likely to say they’d like to see their own in charge of Congress after November 4, with about three-quarters in each party saying they hope their side winds up in control. Democrats are a bit less apt to say they want their own party to win than they were in May, 74 percent in the new poll compared with 80 percent then.

And the GOP now holds narrow advantages over Democrats on handling an array of top issues, including the economy, immigration and the federal budget.

But neither party is trusted much to manage the federal government, with 27 percent having faith in the GOP to 24 percent in Democrats. More people, 31 percent, say they trust neither party to run the federal government.

Fewer people have confidence in the federal government’s ability to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country in 2014 than at the start of the year, with 74 percent saying they have little or no confidence. That’s a slight change from the 70 percent who said so in a December AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey. That shift in confidence stems from a small drop-off among Democrats. While 56 percent lacked confidence in December, 62 percent say the same now.

Overall, few express faith in those currently on Capitol Hill. Just 36 percent say they’d like to see their own member of Congress re-elected, 62 percent say they want someone else to win this November. So far, just three House incumbents have been ousted in primaries this year, and none in the Senate. The Congressional approval rating, 13 percent in the new poll, lags behind President Barack Obama’s 40 percent.

Though the economy pushed the nation’s “right direction” figures to historic lows in the fall of 2008, that does not seem to be the culprit in the new poll. About a third (35 percent) say the economy is in good shape, about the same as in May, and 58 percent say the economy has stayed about the same in the past month.

The decline in optimism about the country’s path in the new poll seems to mirror those in October 2013 and August 2011, when congressional inaction led to the threat of a government shutdown in 2011 and a partial one in 2013. Among Democrats, the share saying the nation is heading in the right direction dipped 11 points since May, to 49 percent, while among independents, it’s down slightly to 23 percent. Among Republicans, the 9 percent saying the country is heading the right way is similar to May. The October 2013 and August 2011 declines in right direction were also driven by sharp drops among Democrats and independents.

Among those who say they are highly likely to vote this fall, just 8 percent say they approve of the way Congress is handling its job, though 43 percent would like to see their member of Congress re-elected, a bit higher than among all adults. Republicans have an edge among this group as the party more preferred to control Congress, 43 percent to 34 percent, with 23 percent saying it doesn’t matter.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28, 2014, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents. It is larger for subgroups.

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

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Follow Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JennAgiesta

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Online:

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

 


AP-GfK Poll: No agreement on how to pay for highways

By JOAN LOWY and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Small wonder Congress has kept federal highway and transit programs teetering on the edge of insolvency for years, unable to find a politically acceptable long-term source of funds. The public can’t make up its mind on how to pay for them either.

Six in 10 Americans think the economic benefits of good highways, railroads and airports outweigh the cost to taxpayers. Yet there is scant support for some of the most frequently discussed options for paying for construction of new roads or the upkeep of existing ones, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

Among those who drive places multiple times per week, 62 percent say the benefits outweigh the costs. Among those who drive less than once a week or not at all, 55 percent say the costs of road improvement are worthwhile.

Yet a majority of all Americans — 58 percent — oppose raising federal gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects such as the repair, replacement or expansion of roads and bridges. Only 14 percent support an increase. And by a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans oppose having private companies pay for construction of new roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge tolls. Moving to a usage tax based on how many miles a vehicle drives also draws more opposition than support — 40 percent oppose it, while 20 percent support it.

Support for shifting more responsibility for paying for such projects to state and local government is a tepid 30 percent.

“Congress is actually reflecting what people want,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank. “People want to have a federal (transportation) program and they don’t want to pay for it.”

Last week, Congress cobbled together $10.8 billion to keep transportation aid flowing to states by changing how employers fund worker pension programs, extending customs user fees and transferring money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks. The money was needed to make up a shortfall between aid promised to states and revenue raised by the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax, which haven’t been increased in more than 20 years.

It’s the fifth time in the last six years that Congress has patched a hole in the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for highway and transit aid. Each time it gets more difficult for lawmakers to find the money without increasing the federal budget deficit. Critics described the pension funding changes used this time as budget gimmicks that would cost the government more in the long run and undermine employee pension programs.

The latest patch cleared Congress about three hours before midnight last Thursday, the day before the Transportation Department said it would begin cutting back aid payments to states. The current fix is only expected to cover the revenue gap through next May, when Congress will be back where it started unless lawmakers act sooner.

The most direct solution would be to raise fuel taxes. That’s what three blue-ribbon federal commissions have recommended. But opposition to a gas tax increase cuts across party lines, although Republicans are more apt to oppose an increase, 70 percent, than Democrats, 52 percent.

“Every time we turn around there’s another tax, and our gas taxes are so high now,” said James Lane, 52, of Henry County in rural south-central Virginia, who described himself as leaning toward the GOP.

Lane favors allowing companies to pay for the construction of new or expanded roads and bridges in exchange for the right impose tolls on motorists, often for many decades. There have been projects like that in Virginia, but since those roads are in more populated areas of the state where he doesn’t drive it makes sense to have the people who use them pay for them, he said.

But Michael Murphy, 63, a data services contractor who lives near San Antonio, Texas, where a high-speed public-private toll road is scheduled to open this fall, said he’d rather see gas taxes increased than tolls imposed on drivers. Roads benefit everyone, even if indirectly, so it’s only fair that everyone who drives pays something toward their cost, he said.

A majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, say traffic in the area where they live has gotten worse in the last five years. Only 6 percent say traffic has improved in their area, and 33 percent that it’s stayed about the same.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents, larger for subgroups.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet 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