Older Voters Want Social Security Guarantees

Candidates are courting retirees by pledging to support Social Security.

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Many political candidates are pledging their support for Social Security as the midterm elections approach. Some 136 members of Congress signed a letter sent to President Obama on Friday opposing any cuts to Social Security, including raising the retirement age and any form of privatization. Speaker Nancy Pelosi also committed to bringing a bill to a vote in November that promises to give an extra $250 payment to about 54 million Social Security recipients.

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It’s no surprise that candidates are courting seniors. Older Americans are generally the most likely to vote. AARP estimates that 69 percent of Americans over age 45 voted in the 2008 general election, compared to 57 percent of people between ages 18 and 44. The higher turnout of older Americans is especially prominent during midterm elections. In 1994, citizens age 45 and older made up 56 percent of all voters in congressional elections, a number that gradually increased to 65 percent in 2006. Over the same time period the proportion of younger voters fell from 44 percent in 1994 to 35 percent in 2006. AARP predicts that two-thirds of voters in the 2010 election will be 45 or older.

Most of these older voters say they want Social Security left alone. “People see Social Security for what it is: a self-financed program that doesn’t contribute to the deficit,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president. “It is very clear that they see Social Security as their investment, their money. They don’t see it as a solution to the deficit problem. They see it as an essential lifeline for people over age 65.”

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A majority of Republicans (51 percent), Democrats (66 percent), and ticket-splitters (61 percent) age 50 and older say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who favors reducing the deficit by cutting Social Security benefits for future retirees, according to a recent survey of 1,000 AARP members who are likely voters by American Viewpoint, Inc. and Hart Research Associates. And 95 percent of the likely older voters interviewed say it is important that a candidate in the 2010 election pledge their commitment to ensuring that Social Security remain a guaranteed lifelong benefit. “AARP members do not support reducing Social Security benefits for future retirees,” says Gary Ferguson, senior vice president of American Viewpoint. “They would be less likely to vote for a candidate that supports reducing benefits.”

The Social Security trust fund is currently projected to have sufficient funding to pay out promised retirement benefits until the end of 2037. Then, unless changes are made to the program, payouts will be cut to about 78 percent of scheduled benefits. Voters are unsure about the best way to address this projected shortfall. Some 42 percent of Americans support raising taxes to fix the problem, while 31 percent prefer the benefit cuts, according to a recent Gallup survey of 1,019 adults age 18 and over. Interestingly, 20-somethings (52 percent) and those age 65 and older (46 percent) are the biggest supporters of tax increases. Middle-aged Americans slightly favor tax increases over benefit cuts, with roughly a third of those between 30 an 64 supporting each option.

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Many of the proposed changes to Social Security will impact only Americans currently under age 55. Two-thirds of AARP members (67 percent) say they are confident that they will receive full Social Security benefits throughout their retirement. However, most older adults say they want their children to receive similar retirement payouts. Virtually all the respondents to the AARP survey (97 percent) say that it is important to them that Social Security be there for future generations.