WASHINGTON—Social Security is all about older people, but in the debate about changing it, a lot of the politics is about young people.
Polls indicate that President Bush is losing support for his push to partly privatize Social Security, but the one group he's winning support from may be the most important politically, especially in years to come—young people.
A new poll released Wednesday found that those ages 18-29—the only age group that solidly supports Bush's idea of using their tax money to fund private retirement accounts —is also the only group whose support for the idea has increased in recent months, although by a statistically insignificant margin.
That eye-catching political fact could influence the debate over Social Security, even though the young people's tilt isn't enough to offset opposition from all other age groups. If Bush can use the promise of private investment accounts to turn young people into Republicans—they were the only age group that went for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last year_ that shift could cement an enduring Republican majority.
"It has the potential to dramatically change the political landscape," said Democratic strategist Erik Smith.
In his bid to transform Social Security—and perhaps U.S. politics—Bush is driving a generational wedge into the country. He vowed not to change Social Security benefits for those ages 55 and older, hoping to ease the concerns of older Americans. They tend to vote Republican, but more importantly they turn out to vote more than any other age group.
Yet even if the elders turn against Bush and his party, generational change is coming.
"They're willing to trade everyone over 55 for everyone under 55," said Smith. "They're talking long-term realignment and they're willing to take some short-term casualties to get it."
Younger Americans—those born since the stagflation of the `70s and the Reagan revolution of the `80s ushered in a new political era of greater faith in markets and less trust of government—tend to like Bush's call to let them invest their tax dollars in markets.
The poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 66 percent of those ages 18-29 support private accounts, up from 64 percent in December.
In every other age group, support has dropped since Bush started pushing the idea of private accounts financed by Social Security taxes:
_ Among 30-49 year-olds, 49 percent now support the idea, down from 56 percent in December.
_ Among 50-64 year-olds, 41 percent supported it, down from 51 percent.
_ Among those 65 and older, 25 percent supported it, down from 40 percent.
"I can tell the popularity of personal accounts by how old you are," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a supporter of private accounts. "If you're 55, you don't like them. If you're 25, you'll give up almost everything to get them."
During a recent tour of Pennsylvania, Santorum spent most of his time pitching the idea on college campuses.
"We'd be better off not to even have the Social Security system," said Shane Linc, 18, a college freshman at University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, Pa. "If I started saving and investing now by myself, I'd do a lot better. The system is failing. By the time I retire, there won't be any system."
"I don't want to trust the government with my money," said Sara Callan, 20, a college junior at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh.
Questions remain, however, about how much this is key to building an enduring Republican majority.
First, it's unknown whether young Americans' zeal for privately managed Social Security accounts will dissipate as they age. "When you're under 30, security isn't the issue it is when you're over 50," said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
Second, the depth of their passion for the proposal remains in doubt, if their attention to it is any measure.
Kohut said he found that the more people tuned in to the details of the debate, the more they didn't like the proposal. His survey found that only 20 percent of those ages 18-29 had heard a lot about Bush's proposal; that's double the interest level of two months before, but still the lowest of any age group.
Santorum's tour reflected that: Older people often outnumbered younger ones even at campus meetings. At one, many students who showed up said they did so only because they were promised extra credit by professors.
"People my age don't put much thought into it," said Joseph Motzko, 19, a college freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's not on their radar screen."
(For more on the Pew poll, go to www.people-press.org)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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