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$2 million spent since '98 to poll public on Social Security

WASHINGTON -- While politicians debated saving Social Security, the federal agency that oversees the program has spent $2 million since 1998 to poll the public.

During the Clinton administration, the agency wanted to know whether people thought the program saved older Americans from poverty. Under the Bush administration, it focused some questions on its private investment plan.

Taxpayers covered the cost of the polling, according to government documents obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Social Security Administration first hired the Gallup Organization in 1998, when Bill Clinton was in office. The survey changed markedly in 2003, when George W. Bush began his reelection campaign.

The Bush administration removed from the Clinton-era survey two statements that at least three-quarters of those polled had agreed that ''Social Security benefits play a major role in keeping many senior citizens out of poverty" and ''Social Security is the largest single source of income for most elderly Americans."

New questions sought to determine when the public thought the federal retirement program would go broke and whether people knew anything about Bush's plan to let workers invest part of their Social Security payments in private accounts.

The poll did not mention either president. The Social Security agency, now run by Bush appointee Jo Anne Barnhart, says it changed the questions in 2003 on its own, without input from the White House.

''I have real concerns about any administration using public funds to push its agenda," said Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

A White House spokesman said he was unaware of any White House involvement in the surveys. As for whether they were a good use of public dollars, Trent Duffy said that was a question for Congress, which oversees Social Security.

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