WASHINGTON — Most Americans say go ahead and raise taxes if it will save Social Security benefits for future generations, and raise the retirement age, if you have to, according to a new poll.
Both options are preferable to cutting monthly benefits, even for people who are years away from applying for them, the Associated Press-GfK poll on public attitudes toward the nation's largest federal program shows.
Social Security is facing serious, long-term financial problems. When given a choice on how to fix them, 53 percent of adults said they would rather raise taxes than cut benefits for future generations, according to the poll. Just 36 percent said they would cut benefits instead.
The results were similar when people were asked whether they would rather raise the retirement age or cut monthly payments for future generations: 53 percent said they would raise the retirement age, while 35 percent said they would cut monthly payments.
"Right now, it seems like we're taxed so much, but if that would be the only way to go, I guess I'd have to be for it to preserve it," said Marge Youngs, a 77-year-old widow from Toledo, Ohio. "It's extremely important to me. It's most of my income."
Social Security is being hit by a wave of millions of retiring baby boomers, leaving relatively fewer workers to pay into the system. The trustees who oversee the retirement and disability program say Social Security's trust funds will not be able to fully fund benefits in 2033. At that point, Social Security will only collect enough tax revenue to pay 75 percent of benefits, unless Congress acts.
Lawmakers from both political parties say there is a good chance Congress will address Social Security in the next year or two -- if the White House takes the lead. Yet so far, Social Security has not played a big role in the presidential election.
In previous polls, Democrats scored better than Republicans on handling Social Security. But the AP-GfK poll shows Americans are closely divided on which presidential candidate they trust to handle the issue.
Forty-seven percent said they trust President Barack Obama to do a better job on Social Security, and 44 percent said they trust his presumptive Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. The difference is within the poll's margin of sampling error.
Romney has said he favors gradually increasing the retirement age, but he opposes tax increases to shore up Social Security. For future generations, Romney said he would slow the growth of benefits "for those with higher incomes."
Obama hasn't laid out a detailed plan for addressing Social Security. But during the 2008 campaign, he called for applying the Social Security payroll tax to wages of more than $250,000 per year. It is now limited to wages less than $110,100 per year, a level that increases with inflation.
Obama has said that any changes to Social Security should be done "without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable or people with disabilities, without slashing benefits for future generations and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market."
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has been a leading proponent in Congress of allowing workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into personal investment accounts. Romney has not fully embraced the idea, but Democrats are using it to accuse Republicans of trying to privatize Social Security.
Romney put Ryan on the ticket Aug. 11. The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Aug. 16-20.
About 56 million people get Social Security benefits. Monthly payments average $1,236 for retirees.
The options for fixing Social Security have been raising taxes or cutting benefits, or some combination of the two. But there are many options within each category. Raising the retirement age is a benefit cut for future generations, because they would have to wait longer to qualify for full benefits.
Retirees now can qualify for full benefits at age 66, a threshold that is rising to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.
In previous polls, most of the options for addressing Social Security scored poorly among the public, which helps explain why Congress hasn't embraced them. But the AP-GfK poll forced people to make a choice: Raise taxes or cut benefits? Raise the retirement age or cut monthly payments?
Democrats, Republicans and independents all favored raising the retirement age over cutting monthly payments. But there was a big divide on raising taxes. Sixty-five percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents supported higher taxes, compared with just 38 percent of Republicans.
About three-quarters of those polled said they believe Social Security is an important issue, though there is no consensus about whether people will be able to rely on it throughout their retirement. Only 30 percent of respondents said it was very likely or extremely likely they will be able to rely on Social Security.
Among people younger than 35, just 20 percent said they believe Social Security will provide income throughout their retirement, while 55 percent of people 65 and older said the same.