Matt Towery

A new USA Today/Gallup poll on Social Security reform has been served up this week to bolster the belief that the future financial soundness of the pension system can be assured by eliminating the current cap on the amount of a given person's income that can be taxed.

 This serves as a vivid example of how the wording of survey questions can steer the answers in a given direction.

 Based on a graph of the poll published in USA Today, it appears Gallup asked if respondents would favor or oppose legislation that would "require higher income workers to pay Social Security on all of their wages."

 It shouldn't shock anyone that nearly 67 percent favored the idea. Further, virtually the same percentage said they would favor placing a limit on the Social Security benefits that "wealthy retirees" receive.

 Gallup's question presupposed that most Americans are knowledgeable about the structural details of the Social Security system. They aren't, of course.

 All workers pay the same Social Security tax rate on their incomes up to $90,000. They pay nothing on earnings over that amount. Employers must match one half of the amount of tax the employee pays.

 Few Americans know this. So Gallup's phrasing of the poll question may have left many respondents with the mistaken impression that "higher income" workers somehow escape paying their fair share of Social Security taxes.

 This isn't to say that a general tax-the-rich sentiment -- always popular with the voters -- didn't play a big part in the poll's finding. Still, given the complexities of Social Security and any efforts to reform it, the survey would have been truer to the mark if it had asked questions with wordings that more accurately represented the differences between the current system and the proposed new one.

 Consider how many American small businesses are owned and operated by men and women who earn, say, between $150,000 and $200,000 a year. They have undertaken great risk in being entrepreneurs, and in creating jobs and buying goods and services that invigorate the U.S. economy.

 Under the Social Security reform suggested in the Gallup poll question, these good folks would suddenly find themselves paying somewhere between $7,444 and $13,640 more in taxes, depending on where along the $150K-$200K line they fall.

 The above salaries may sound dazzlingly high to many people. But the prospect of making that kind of money is the incentive designed to entice capable Americans into creating the lesser-paying jobs that many of us take for granted.

Matt Towery

Matt Towery is a pollster, attorney, businessman and former elected official. He served as campaign strategist for Congressional, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns. His latest book is Newsvesting: Use News and Opinion to Grow Your Personal Wealth. Follow him on Twitter @MattTowery