North Carolinians skeptical of Bush plan for Social Security, Elon University Poll finds

North Carolinians are more likely to disapprove than approve of President George W. Bush’s handling of Social Security, with older people and women expressing the strongest disapproval, according to the latest Elon University Poll.

A statewide telephone survey of 544 adults, conducted Feb. 14-17, found concern about the future of Social Security, as well as varying degrees of pessimism about the prospects for collecting full Social Security benefits in the future.

Just over half of the sample, 52 percent, said that Social Security has “major problems,” although only 14 percent describe the system as being in a state of crisis.

“The survey results indicate that the issue of Social Security reform has begun to capture the attention of North Carolinians,” said Tim Vercellotti, assistant professor of political science and director of the Elon University Poll. “But the levels of concern and lack of confidence vary somewhat depending on age and gender.”

The poll found that 31 percent of those surveyed strongly approve or approve of the way President Bush is handling Social Security, compared to 46 percent who disapprove or strongly disapprove.

The results varied by age group. Those ages 55 and older were far more likely to disapprove of the president’s handling of the issue than those ages 18 to 34 years old. Women also were more likely to disapprove than men.

Survey respondents also were pessimistic about the likelihood that they would collect the Social Security benefits to which they are entitled, with 32 percent saying they were “not confident at all” and 29 percent saying they were only “somewhat confident.” Respondents between the ages of 18 and 34, and women, were more likely to express pessimism.

“For young people, the predictions of future financial problems for Social Security are probably driving their concerns,” Vercellotti said. “Women, who might have less in the way of private retirement benefits because of less time in the workforce, may simply feel more vulnerable when it comes to questions about Social Security’s future.”

The poll also found that public opinion was responsive to the language used to frame one of the more controversial ideas concerning Social Security, allowing individuals to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.

Half of those responding to the survey were randomly selected to answer a question about “private investment accounts,” while the other half responded to a similar question concerning “personal investment accounts.”

Those who heard the phrase “private investment accounts” were less likely to support the idea than those who heard the phrase “personal investment accounts.”

“The conventional wisdom is that using the term ‘private’ carries connotations of privatization, which may turn some people off,” Vercellotti said.

“Using the term ‘personal’ is presumed to engender more support,” he added. “Our findings are consistent with those expectations, indicating that language can have a measurable effect on the debate over the future of Social Security.”

The poll also found that 49 percent of North Carolinians approved of the overall job President Bush is doing, and 43 percent approved of the president’s handling of the situation in Iraq. Both approval ratings were down slightly from previous measures taken in the fall, but the decreases were within the margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points for the February poll.

Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed expressed support for creating a state lottery in North Carolina, and 37 percent said they had purchased a lottery ticket in a neighboring state in the past 12 months. Both results were similar to Elon University Poll findings from March 2003.

Also, Virginia continued to be the preferred destination for buying lottery tickets out of state, followed by South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, the latter having started a lottery in 2004.

Sixty-three percent of North Carolinians expressed support for increasing the state’s nickel-a-pack cigarette tax, an increase of nearly five percentage points from last April. When asked to choose a proposed increase for the tax, 19 percent said 10 cents per pack, followed by 15 percent who favored an increase of more than 70 cents per pack.

This poll is the 28th conducted by the Elon Institute for Politics and Public Affairs since it was established in September 2000. The non-partisan Elon Poll conducts frequent statewide scientific telephone polls on issues of importance to North Carolinians. The poll results are shared with media, citizens and researchers to facilitate representative democracy and public policy making through the better understanding of the opinions and needs of North Carolina citizens.

The Elon Poll is conducted by students who work under the direction of faculty members in the political science department. A computerized polling center located on campus is equipped with sophisticated statistical software and 38 telephone polling stations.