About that Social Security poll

CNN released a new poll on Social Security, and some of the results don’t seem to make sense.

Social Security reform has taken center stage in the 2012 presidential debate and one in five say the system is unconstitutional, but a new CNN/ORC International poll shows a majority of Americans have good feelings about the program.

Eight in 10 Americans think Social Security has been good for the country, with 70 percent of young adults agreeing and almost nine in 10 senior citizens saying the same.

Though large majorities of both parties believe the 75-year-old program instituted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been good, about one-third of all Republicans think it is unconstitutional.

So far, so good. The American mainstream likes Social Security, and the nutty wing of the Republican Party doesn’t think Social Security should exist.

But the question that stood out asked respondents: “As you may know, a proposal has been made that would allow workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market or in bonds, while the rest of those taxes would remain in the Social Security system. Do you favor or oppose this proposal?”

A 52% majority favored the privatization plan, 16 points higher than a few years ago, and pointing to a public sentiment wholly at odds with all other recent polling. So what’s the problem? Have conservative arguments against the integrity of the Social Security system suddenly persuaded the American majority?

I rather doubt it. Part of the issue may be contextual understanding of the debate. When there was considerable attention on Social Security privatization during the Bush era, the public was frequently confronted with relevant details, and the mainstream hated the idea. That discussion has since faded, and many Americans may have forgotten the arguments they used to find persuasive. Should the debate reignite, I suspect public attitudes would adjust accordingly.

But there’s also the issue of the question’s wording: CNN made it sound as if workers could take funds out of the Social Security system without consequence. We know that’s false — it’s a pay as you go system, and if current workers put money in the stock market instead of Social Security, there will be far fewer funds to pay current retirees — but the poll question made no reference to these details.

In other words, I’d take the CNN poll with a grain of salt. There’s probably less here than meets the eye.