MTV Poll Masks Youth Views on Social Security

In the political Odd Coupling of 2005, MTV’s Rock the Vote (search) has joined forces with AARP (search).

Their mission: Block efforts to let young workers invest some of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts.

“Young and old have united!” trumpets According to the Web site, they’ve done so “to make sure you get paid the Social Security Benefits that you deserve, and to prevent the kinds of cuts in benefits for young people that have been floated by advocates of privatization.”

Heady stuff, indeed. And the first fruit of this alliance is suitably audacious: a survey, produced in concert with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (search), that takes “push-polling” to a whole new level.

Push-polling (search) is the intellectually dishonest practice of conducting a survey in a way designed to produce a pre-determined result. Such polls follow up a neutrally worded question with more “questions” that provide new information. The added information presents only one side of an argument and is designed to “coach” or “push” the respondent into giving the desired answer.

The AARP/RTV report on “Public Attitudes Toward Social Security and Private Accounts ” is based on a survey of 1,000 adults. It starts legitimately enough: “How confident are you that Social Security will be there for you when you retire?”

More than two of every three of the survey’s “youth” cohort (caution: the youngest cohort includes people as old as 39) gave an undesirable answer. A third were “not too confident.” Another 35 percent were “not at all confident” the program would “be there" for them.

The next question produced even more bad news for RTV: More than two-thirds were either “very” or “somewhat” confident that their savings and/or investments will generate enough money for their retirement.

But the kicker, in RTV’s eyes, was worse.

The poll informed respondents: “Some people propose allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market through individual retirement accounts. For the average worker, this portion could be up to $1,300 per year that [he] could invest.” Then came the question: “In general, do you favor or oppose this approach?”

Again, two-thirds of the under-40 crowd got it “wrong.” They liked the approach President Bush advocates — the very approach opposed by the self-anointed voice of American youth, Rock the Vote.

Of course, such apostasy must not stand. Displaying an arrogance seldom found outside modeling runways, the AARP/RTV report blithely dismisses the question (and, thus, the majority view of respondents) as “simplistic.”

Luckily, AARP and RTV had been prescient enough to foresee that the vast majority of younger workers would support personal accounts. (It’s what legitimate surveys have been finding for years.)

Consequently, the survey itself proceeded to supply the necessary “nuance” by posing nine follow-up questions for the 198 lost young souls who dared embrace the concept of personal retirement accounts. “Would you still favor” reform if it meant:

— creating a new government agency?

— massive new federal debt?

— requiring “additional help from government”?

The barrage of unattractive hypotheticals ran on and on. This isn’t polling. This is a lecture from an overeager high school guidance counselor. Why not just ask us if we would prefer privatization if we had to eat cat food in our retirement? If we’d be forced to listen to Milli Vanilli? If advocates of personal accounts would come to our houses, kick our dogs and erase our iPods?

Respondents who gave the desired, anti-reform response up-front were spared the rubber-hose treatment. They received only three follow-up questions, each of which mentioned an up-side to reform: having more control over retirement money investment, the “potential” for more retirement money and the ability to leave any nest-egg balance to one’s children.

Of course, so few of the 18-39 demographic initially opposed privatization that the polling firm considers the sample size for the anti-reform group too small to be completely reliable!

Yet, despite these loaded questions, a plurality of the Rock the Vote cohort still believed that investing in private equities is good for Social Security. Forty-seven percent of the 18-39 cohort responded that Social Security would be strengthened with the ability to invest part of our payroll taxes in the stock market. And half of the RTV cohort believes that investing in a private account would make up for benefits cuts. And this is after being told that private accounts are the financial equivalent of the 10 plagues.

Notable was the absence of any questions informing these respondents about bad things that might happen if Congress rejects efforts to reform Social Security via personal accounts.

Would respondents still oppose reform if they knew the status quo would force benefit cuts of 27 percent by the year 2042? If they knew it would mean hiking their retirement taxes by 18 percent? If they knew it would mean that most young workers will never get as much out of the system as they pay into it?

Because of its maniacally manipulative methodology, the AARP/RTV survey can tell us nothing reliable about what Americans think about Social Security. But it speaks volumes about the sponsors. Neither AARP nor RTV wants to hear what their constituents think. Both groups are far more interested in telling their constituents what they should think — whether they like it or not.

Rea Hederman is a senior policy analyst is the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.