Personal Finance

Americans Will Pay to Shore Up Social Security: Poll

Allison Linn, TODAY
Tom Grill | Photographers Choice | Getty Images

Most Americans think it's important to preserve adequate Social Security benefits for younger generations — and they may even be willing to pay more taxes to get that assurance, a new survey finds.

The survey, released Thursday by the nonprofit National Academy of Social Insurance, found that about eight in 10 Americans think it is critical to support Social Security even if it means that working Americans have to pay more in taxes. A slightly higher percentage of the 2,000 people surveyed said they think it's critical to save Social Security even if wealthy people have to pay more.

But here's the thing: Many Americans also want something in return.

The study found broad-based support among both younger and older Americans for a plan that would gradually increase the amount of payroll taxes everyone pays and also eliminate the cap on the amount of income that can be taxed for Social Security. In return, that plan would call for raising minimum benefits and increasing cost-of-living-adjustments.

The survey comes as many Americans are growing more worried about whether they will see any Social Security benefits at all. Under current government estimates, Social Security could face funding shortfalls in about two decades because the U.S. population is aging and generally living longer.

Experts say it's not too surprising to find that older people are heavily in favor of retaining Social Security benefits even if it means paying more taxes, but it's a little more surprising to find that younger Americans also seem to support it generally.

Still, after five difficult years in which many people have struggled financially, many workers may see the allure of a plan that would give them some financial certainty late in life.

"Social Security wasn't designed to be a sole major source of retirement income, but for many people who haven't saved enough … it certainly looks attractive," said Alan Auerbach, director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at UC Berkeley.

Jasmine Tucker, income security research associate with the National Academy of Social Insurance, said she thinks the results show that people are willing to pay extra taxes for Social Security because they know that they will see a return on that investment later in life.

"People seem to be very resistant to raising any taxes, but I think Social Security is different," she said.

Other studies have found support for raising taxes more narrowly on wealthy Americans to help fund Social Security. A Pew Research Center survey released in December found that 66 percent of Americans would support raising payroll taxes on high-income earners, while 55 percent would support reducing benefits for high-income seniors.

Still, Auerbach – who was not involved in the study – noted that it's one thing for people to say they would be willing to pay more taxes to help fund Social Security, and quite another for them to actually commit to a plan that would effectively shrink their current paycheck.

"Do people really know what this would mean in terms of their take-home pay? Have they really thought through what the implications are?" Auerbach asked.

Many Americans are seeing that real-world effect right now, because the end to the payroll tax holiday has resulted in an effective tax hike equal to about 2 percent of their wages. This survey was conducted in September, before the payroll tax holiday ended.

Critics also argue that it may not be feasible to fix Social Security's funding woes just by raising taxes. Many other plans have called for a mix of raising taxes and reducing benefits either by curtailing cost-of-living adjustments or increasing the age at which people can get full benefits.

"There's no attractive way to do this. There's just a variety of less attractive ways," said Andrew Biggs, resident scholar with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

Biggs also argued that despite what the findings show, it would be difficult for politicians to garner support for a plan that involved raising taxes on all Americans.

"If this stuff was so popular, somebody would have proposed it by now," he said.

It is clear that Americans are anxious for Congress and President Barack Obama to find some way to overhaul Social Security and other programs designed to help older Americans.

A Gallup poll released just days after the 2012 presidential election found that nearly nine in 10 Americans thought it was important for Obama to take major steps to ensure the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare.