It's time for another Wal-Mart survey, but I've got a problem. The traditional Wal-Mart that for 14 years has operated just 100 paces from my office door is no longer there. Business was apparently so good that they locked their doors a few days ago to reopen two miles away in a building more than twice as big and under a Super Wal-Mart sign.
All these changes, however-along with the vitriolic hatred a number of folks have for Wal-Mart-haven't changed my mind about the advisability of parking out as a journalist from time to time at Wal-Mart's front door for an informal public opinion survey on some timely topic. Wal-Mart customers may be more blue collar than upscale, but I'm still persuaded they represent a pretty good cross section of what America is thinking.
So with the Social Security issue still racing through my mind (see last week's issue), I thought I'd ask some of Wal-Mart's younger shoppers what they think on the topic. My problem? The new Wal-Mart has two front doors instead of just one, and I couldn't decide which was more statistically accurate.
In the end, I talked briefly with 60 people-30 at each door, and all under 25 years of age. Here's how they responded.
More than half (36) agreed that Social Security's long-term problems are "pretty serious, needing some radical help." Half that many (18) said the problems are "fixable through a few slightly painful adjustments." Astonishingly, only six thought that the problems are "overstated and an issue that will take care of itself." And if you had seen and heard those six people, you would have discounted their responses in any case. They were the most happy-go-lucky, loosey-goosey folks you can imagine. For them, every problem in life is going to take care of itself.
I don't know how typical of all young Americans this group was, but these were happily clueless-and almost carefree-about the amount they're contributing to Social Security. Most guessed low; two-thirds said they thought about 3 percent is withheld from their paychecks for this purpose. The other third thought about 10 percent is withheld. In fact, the amount is 6.2 percent. It's hard to see how citizens ignorant of the basic facts can be counted on to respond wisely to any future debate on the topic.
But these respondents were even farther off when asked how much they think their employers contribute to their Social Security accounts. Almost all were high, averaging about 13 percent instead of the actual matching amount of 6.2 percent.
I gave these young people two choices with reference to what happens to the money that gets withheld. Eighty percent agreed (wrongly) that the money "goes into a government bank where it earns interest until my retirement." Only 20 percent chose the right answer: "The money is credited to my account, and then spent on other government needs."
Even so, there was little optimism about the system. Only 22 percent thought that benefits "will be there pretty much like they are for other retirees today." Thirty percent said benefits will be there, but smaller in size, and another 30 percent said they'd be there but probably delayed until a later retirement age. Eighteen percent were gloomy enough to say the benefits probably won't be there at all.
Forty of the 60 young respondents thought that private savings accounts would make Social Security stronger. The other 20 said it would make the system too risky.
Only 10 of the 60 realized that if a typical couple pays into the system for their whole lives, contributing perhaps $150,000 not counting interest earned; then starts collecting benefits at 65; and then is killed in a car crash when they're 60-that in such a case the $150,000 plus interest earnings is totally gone. The other 50 folks assumed erroneously that somehow a surviving family would somehow benefit from what was left. In fact, only old Uncle Sam would claim such a benefit.
And only eight of the 60 respondents realized that members of the U.S. Congress enjoy their own retirement plan, and don't have to pay into Social Security while on the government payroll.
It was an affable, agreeable group who seemed to find my brief assignment to be enjoyable. But I found myself hoping they can carry that casual spirit into their retirement four or five decades from now.