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Hello, Congress: Americans want a strong Social Security system

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[July 01, 2014]  By Mark Miller

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Political polarization is at a historic peak. Americans are divided on gun control, abortion, healthcare and privacy, according to a study released last month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press documenting our increasing ideological rigidity and partisan antipathy (http://bit.ly/1v23UXF).

Then there's Social Security. The public is worried deeply about the finances of our bedrock retirement and disability program. Pew found just 14 percent of Americans expect to receive their full benefits. And an earlier Pew study found concern is much higher among young people: Roughly half of Gen Xers and Millennials think Social Security won't have enough money to pay any benefits at all when they retire.

But two-thirds of Americans say Social Security should be kept as it is - that is, don't cut benefits. Just a third said benefit cuts should be considered in the future. There's even relative agreement inside ideological camps: Two-thirds of liberals and 59 percent of conservatives agreed benefits should be maintained at current levels.

"There really wasn't much of a difference on the issue, as there is on many others," said Jocelyn Kiley, associate director for research at Pew.

The report is timely, because the most important annual report on the financial health of Social Security likely will be released this month. The Social Security trustees' report is expected to reiterate last year's forecast, which shows that the program's trust fund will be exhausted in 2034. Absent reforms before that time, Social Security would be able to pay only about 75 percent of promised benefits.

And the program faces a more urgent deadline in 2016, when its disability insurance reserves are forecast to run dry, forcing a 20 percent cut in benefits. Congress could avert that by authorizing a small reallocation of payroll tax revenue from the retirement fund to the disability fund, something it has voted to do six times in the past.

But with Congress as deeply polarized as the public, can lawmakers get their act together to reform the program anytime soon?

"The whole point of the trustee report is to serve as an early warning system for policymakers and public that the system will be out of balance, so they can consider their options," says Virginia Reno, vice president for income security at the National Academy of Social Insurance.

NASI released its own public opinion survey on Social Security in 2013. Like Pew, it found the public united strongly against cutting benefits. But the NASI survey, which will be updated this fall, probed further on preferred solutions. And it found a strong majority supports paying higher taxes to restore long-term solvency.

The demographic and political diversity of people holding that view was remarkable: 74 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of families with income over $100,000, 84 percent of baby boomers, 80 percent of Gen X (born in the 1960s to the early 1980s) and 77 percent of Gen Y (born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s).

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The consensus view actually went further than just paying more to restore the status quo on benefits. Presented with a menu of options, the most popular (71 percent) included a mix of higher taxes and expanded benefits. In this scenario, the cap on earnings taxed for Social Security (currently $117,000) would be eliminated over a 10-year period. Payroll tax rates on employers and workers would be lifted gradually over 20 years, to 7.2 percent from 6.2 percent.

At the same time, a special minimum benefit aimed at keeping very low-income workers out of poverty would be beefed up, and the program's annual cost-of-living adjustment would be made using a more generous formula reflecting inflation pressures facing seniors.

The Pew study found less support for expansion - 27 percent favored "covering more people with more benefits." But even here, support was nearly as high among liberals (31 percent) as among those with "mixed ideological views" (29 percent).

Those findings don't surprise Reno. "Perhaps the agreement on Social Security is so widespread because it resonates with our basic values," she said. "We pay for it, it's equitable, everyone is in, and benefits are somewhat related to what you pay in and get out."

For more from Mark Miller, see http://link.reuters.com/qyk97s

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance. Editing by Douglas Royalty)

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