Politics & Policy

Aarp’s Agenda

AARP distorts the public-opinion data on Social Security.

AARP released a poll last month purportedly showing that the public agrees with it on a personal-account option for Social Security–opposing the idea by 48 percent to 43 percent. That poll seemed odd, since it was way out of line with polls going back over ten years now consistently showing large majorities supporting personal accounts.

So USA Next, the rapidly growing organization for future-looking, 21st-century seniors, asked nationally renowned pollster John McLaughlin to look into the AARP poll. What he found might remind you a little of what bloggers found when they looked into the supposed documents behind Dan Rather’s phony CBS story about President Bush’s National Guard service.

First, the survey excluded everyone under age 30. To AARP, they don’t exist, even though they made up 17 percent of voters in the last election.

Those over 60 constituted 34 percent of the survey sample, even though they represented 24 percent of voters in the last election. Thirty-three percent of the survey’s respondents reported that they regularly receive Social Security benefits, yet only 20.7 percent of all adults do.

The AARP survey also included 37 percent Democrats and 31 percent Republicans. But that is hopelessly outdated, as voters in the last election were identified as 37 percent Republican and 37 percent Democrat.

Another example: AARP asked respondents in the survey whether they agree with the statement, “Social Security should be protected as a guaranteed benefit, and should not be privatized.” But Social Security benefits are not guaranteed under current law. Moreover, personal-account reforms would not downgrade the status of Social Security benefits, as the question implies.

USA Next then engaged McLaughlin to do a real survey on personal accounts. McLaughlin found that 55 percent of voters would support allowing workers a free choice to shift some of their payroll taxes into their own personal-savings and investment accounts, with only 27 percent opposed.

McLaughlin also asked voters what they would think if the personal accounts were backed up by a federal guarantee ensuring that workers would all receive at least as much as promised by Social Security under current law. Such a guarantee is included in the bill introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. John Sununu (R., N.H.). In this case, support for the idea soars to 64 percent.

By contrast, voters overwhelmingly oppose by 71 percent to 17 percent eliminating the long-term Social Security deficits by reducing future promised benefits by 30 percent. This is what shifting the basic Social Security benefit formula from wage indexing to price indexing would do. Many think-tank warriors have strongly indicated their great willingness to sacrifice the political prospects of elected Republicans by having them add such price indexing to a personal-account-reform package.

These survey results show the importance of crafting personal-account reforms carefully. When personal accounts are done right, they are overwhelmingly popular. If Democrats fight without reason against such reform, Republicans are only going to gain politically in base Democrat constituency groups such as African Americans, Hispanics, and low- and moderate-income workers.

But adding overwhelmingly unpopular ideas like price indexing to the reform is only going to undermine the popularity of personal accounts, give the Democrats a real basis of opposition, and probably kill the whole reform effort. Those who support price indexing simply don’t understand the personal accounts.

If the accounts are large enough, as in the Ryan-Sununu plan, then the accounts will eventually eliminate the long-term deficits of Social Security without any benefit cuts like price indexing to the old Social Security structure. That is because so much of the Social Security benefit obligations are shifted to the accounts that the old program is left in permanent surplus. This has been established by the official scores of various reform plans by the chief actuary of Social Security. It can be accomplished as well by phasing in the large accounts more slowly, though that would delay the achievement of permanent solvency.

Finally, the public should recognize from the analysis of these polls that AARP is a liberal lobbying group, not an honest representative of seniors. Most important, USA Next now offers members all the benefits that AARP does. So unless you support high taxes and big government, as AARP does on every issue, there is no longer reason to belong to AARP.

Peter Ferrara is a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation and director of the Social Security Project for the Free Enterprise Fund.

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