Three-quar-ters of Americans say they would favor letting workers shift some Social Security taxes into private accounts to invest on their own, according to an Associated Press poll.
But asked if they would want to invest their own Social Security money in stocks and mutual funds, more than half of those surveyed - 53 percent - said no, it would be too risky.In Kansas City, Mo., where President Clinton on Tuesday will kick off a series of town hall meetings to discuss possible Social Security changes, people interviewed separately from the poll had many questions about how private accounts would work and whether it was wise to use them to replace Social Security.
"How much privatization are we talking about?" Rick Yarnell, a 41-year-old auditor, wondered.
Some in Congress have proposed shifting to private accounts to help keep Social Security financially viable as millions of baby boomers retire. The Clinton administration has raised concerns about such "privatization."
"We've had disasters with privatization in other areas," said Katie Neely-Phelan, 42, a Kansas City video editor.
Still, most Americans polled - 74 percent - say they would rath-er see a fundamental redesign of Social Security than tinkering. Just 17 percent said they would prefer adjustments to payroll taxes and pension benefits that could maintain the current retirement system.
The telephone poll of 1,013 adults was taken for AP on March 27-31 by ICR of Media, Pa. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
When asked about specifics, 80 percent of those polled said they would favor letting workers shift some of their Social Security tax payments into private accounts.
Less dramatic changes were not as popular.
For example, just 22 percent of Americans said they would support raising payroll taxes for all workers. Nearly 76 percent opposed raising taxes.
About the same number, 77 percent, oppose further increases in the retirement age, which is already scheduled to go up gradually from 65 to 67 for people born after 1937. About 21 percent of those surveyed favored a retirement age of 70, with those already over 65 the most supportive.
People were more evenly divided about scaling back cost-of-living raises now given yearly to retirees, with 53 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed. Those over age 55 were actually the most supportive group, with about 60 percent willing to sacrifice benefits they get now or will soon.
Although private accounts were the most appealing option in theory, Americans are wary when asked if they would want to invest their own Social Security taxes in stocks or mutual funds; only about 46 percent said they would.
People between the ages of 18 and 34 were most likely to support the idea of private accounts, with nearly 90 percent in that age group in favor. But far fewer of these young people - only 52 percent - said they'd want to risk investing for themselves.
Most likely to be interested in taking charge of their own retirement savings were people younger than 54, those making more than $50,000 a year and those with at least some college education.
Social Security is in danger of being overwhelmed by the impending retirement of the largest generation in America's history: the baby boomers. Current predictions are that the program will run short on cash by 2029 if nothing is done.
Many Republicans in Congress and some moderate Democrats sup-port diverting Social Security taxes into a private savings system. Under such a system, workers themselves would invest the money deducted from their wages.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich this week endorsed an experimental approach that would start those accounts this year, without touching Social Security, by using government surpluses resulting from the balanced-budget deal. Gingrich said the accounts could "create the framework for a new, modern, per-son-al retirement system."
However, Clinton administration officials say a radical restructuring of Social Security is not necessarily needed. Adjusting tax rates, benefit levels and the retirement age could also do the trick.
Both sides say all options should be on the table. Clinton has called for four town meetings this year to be followed by a White House conference in December and negotiations with Congress next year.