Deficit Hawk Survey Falsely Claimed People Support Cutting Social Security


Update below.*

A high-profile survey funded by anti-Social Security advocates falsely reported that Americans favor raising the age of retirement to 69, according to a subsequent correction made by the organization.

On June 26, results were released of a nationwide survey of participants in town hall events dedicated to discussing ways to reduce the deficit. The events were organized by AmericaSpeaks and largely funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson is a hedge-fund billionaire dedicated to cutting Social Security in the name of deficit reduction.

According to the group, the only across-the-board cut that the participants favored was raising the retirement age to 69. Increasing the age is a dramatic cut, because those who choose early retirement receive significantly less every year they receive benefits. Even if a recipient waits until 69, he or she would begin receiving benefits at a lower rate.

That a majority supports such a proposal surprised some observers, though it was attributed to the misleading information presented to participants.

The truth was much simpler: The numbers were wrong.

AmericaSpeaks has since corrected the survey in an online slideshow and a PDF of the report that lives on its site. The incorrect number had already been blasted out to the press and delivered to the deficit commission. The correction was spotted by blogger David Dayen at Firedoglake.com.

The new conclusion: "No option to reduce benefits received support from a majority of participants."

In the corrected survey, support for raising the retirement age plummets from above 50 percent down to 39. In a blog post that notes the correction, Joe Goldman, vice president of citizen engagement for AmericaSpeaks, doesn't specify that the most significant result of the correction was to wipe out the only good news for the anti-Social Security group that funded the exercise.

"Fourth, we were able to correct the voting results in four questions that had been calculated incorrectly," writes Goldman. "It turned out that on those questions in which participants were able to vote for multiple options, a flaw in the voting software meant that the system was double counting (e.g. if you hit the number 3 button several times, it would record several votes for number 3 instead of just one.) Fortunately, Turning Point Technologies was able to go through the data files and eliminate double counting. Notably, this error essentially didn't change the relative position of options within a given category. Rather, the big difference is that it lowered the percentage support for many options in these four questions. We apologize for any confusion that this has caused. Turning Point Technologies has assured us that they will be correcting the software error."

Goldman is an Obama backer and AmericaSpeaks, while it's professionally nonpartisan, is generally a progressive organization despite its affiliation with Peterson. Goldman tells HuffPost that he made sure to alert members of the advisory committee as soon as the mistake was caught, an assertion backed up by committee member Larry Mishel, a progressive economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

He also stressed that when the group presented the information to the deficit commission, it didn't highlight the specific number that supported increasing the retirement age.

"Relatively little support was expressed for reducing Social Security benefits to achieve deficit reductions, with the most popular of these options being an option to raise the age of achieving full benefits to 69 by 2025," testified Carolyn Lukensmeyer, head of AmericaSpeaks. "Significant support was expressed, on the other hand, for raising revenues through payroll taxes. Far and away, the most highly supported of all options presented by AmericaSpeaks was an option to raise the payroll tax cap on earnings to 90%. Additional feedback through the computers suggested that some participants supported eliminating the cap all together."

The corrected survey shows that despite the effort of Peterson's organization to skew the results, people simply don't want to see Social Security cut. "I think the story should be that elite opinion doesn't match opinion around the country," said Mishel. "You wonder if all the deficit hawks will take account of the actual recommendations of the people."

If they did, private accounts would not be treated as a serious proposition. Other unpopular policies also ended up less popular when the correction was made. A mere 17 percent of respondents support creating "personal savings accounts," which is a term coined by Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz to describe Social Security privatization. That was down from 27 percent backing in the uncorrected version.

The final results of the survey of 3,500 people show a decidedly progressive populace. Sixty percent supported raising the cap to tax more income. Currently, income above roughly $100,000 avoids paying Social Security taxes. A full 85 percent wanted cuts to defense spending. A majority supporting raising taxes on the wealthy and a carbon tax and 50 percent backed a tax on financial transactions.

Even the uncorrected results were apparently unpleasant for the Peterson group. When it sent out its initial email in early July announcing the completion of the survey, titled "National Town Meeting: The Results," the actual results were conspicuously absent. "To learn what your fellow citizens had to say about the challenges facing our nation's economy, visit USABudgetDiscussion.org," the organization suggested.

Update, 8/24/2010: The Peter G. Peterson Foundation has responded to this story with the following statement, which is published here in full.

To the Editor:

I would like to correct a series of statements made by Ryan Grim in his piece, "Deficit Hawk Survey Falsely Claimed People Support Cutting Social Security," published in the Huffington Post this past Thursday, July 29th.

Contrary to Mr. Grim's characterization of Pete Peterson as an "anti-Social Security advocate," Pete and his foundation strongly believe that Social Security must be preserved and protected. One of the goals of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation is to ensure that this vital program is strong, solvent and secure for future generations, and that safety nets are not brutally shredded in times of fiscal crisis as we have recently seen happen in other countries.

Saving Social Security and other critical social safety net programs will require our nation to chart a more fiscally sustainable path. Pete believes we must work together and build consensus across the political spectrum to address our growing fiscal challenges so that we can introduce reforms fairly, gradually and with compassion. It is under these conditions that our nation can most successfully meet the needs of our seniors, children and lower income families. As part of this process, he also believes it will be imperative that wealthier Americans contribute their fair share to help stabilize our nation's finances.

The suggestion made by Mr. Grim that the Peter G. Peterson Foundation attempted to "skew the results" of the recent AmericaSpeaks National Town Meeting is completely inaccurate and demonstrates Mr. Grim's fundamental misunderstanding of the Foundation's role in this important initiative.

This unique national discussion was organized and hosted by AmericaSpeaks, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with a demonstrated track record of providing citizens with a voice on the most important issues that impact their lives. The initiative was made possible by grant support provided by three leading foundations with a shared commitment to informing the American public and policymakers of the fiscal realities facing the country - the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. AmericaSpeaks established a National Advisory Committee to ensure that the choices presented at the National Town Meeting were fair, accessible and reflective of the most important issues facing the nation. This Committee was comprised of a range of organizations from across the political spectrum and excluded individuals from any of the funding organization to ensure complete independence. Unfortunately, Mr. Grim failed to share these important facts with your readers.

Accordingly, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the other funders were in no way involved with the tabulation of the survey results, a process that was contracted by AmericaSpeaks to Turning Point Technologies. As AmericaSpeaks has acknowledged, the incorrect results for four options were directly a result of a software error and have since been updated and publically noted as corrections to the originally erroneous figures.

The results of the National Town Meeting are featured on the Foundation's website and have been posted for quite some time. We continue to encourage the public to view these results: http://www.pgpf.org/getinvolved/americaspeaks/.

We hope that this information is helpful and would appreciate it if you shared this letter with your readers.

Loretta Ucelli
Vice President
Peter G. Peterson Foundation

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