This recent AP/GfK poll on Social Security has gotten some attention, and I thought how it was worded needed to be addressed. The first question was fine. It ask if people would rather raise more taxes or cut benefits to improve the Social Security trust fund. A majority, 53 percent, said they prefer to raise taxes compared to just 36 percent who said cut benefits.

The second question though was just terrible. It asked if people would prefer to “raising the age at which people can get Social Security but keeping monthly benefits the same for everyone, or keeping the age at which people can get Social Security the same as it is now, but reducing monthly benefits for future generations.” The question has almost no value because raising the retirement age for the most part is basically the thing as cutting monthly benefits.

The way Social Security works is that the official retirement age is not some binary cut off age like Medicare. There is a range of ages you can choose to start taking Social Security. You can start taking Social Security as early at age 62, years before the official (full benefits) retirement age, but as a result you get a lower monthly payment. The earlier you start taking it, the smaller the payments. Raising the official retirement age for full benefits will likely not change the fact that people can take Social Security as early as 62, since that was not changed with the last Social Security age increase. You can also take Social Security later than the official retirement age and receive a higher monthly payment.

The point is that a regular person who planned to start taking Social Security at some set age, say 64 or 65,  would be impacted pretty much the same by either change. If benefits were directly cut they would receive smaller monthly payments. Similarly if instead the “retirement age” were raised they would get smaller monthly payments because there were taking Social Security earlier relative to the “full benefits” eligibility age. Either way ends up as a benefit cut.