Working people think retirement will give them a chance to make a fresh start, but most retirees say their lives are about the same as before - or worse, an upcoming poll finds.

The "Images of Aging" survey, which will be released in its entirety early next month, is part of a $12.5 million campaign funded by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts to get Americans talking about the future of the nation's Social Security pension system.The kickoff was March 21 when the residents of 10 cities were invited to join an "Americans Discuss Social Security" video conference with President Clinton and members of Congress. More forums and periodic releases of polling results culled from interviews with 15,000 Americans will follow.

"Our whole purpose . . . is to understand the context of opinion and impressions that will surround the Social Security debate," said Diane Colasanto, president of Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the polls for Pew.

One finding is that working people "have different expectations than you might think, given the experience of today's retirees," said Colasanto.

Nearly half - 48 percent - of Americans who are still working said they see retirement as "a chance for a new beginning." People aged 35 to 49 were most likely to take this view.

Only a third of current retirees reported their nonworking years have been a fresh start, however. More, 39 percent, said retirement has been just "a continuation of life before," and 20 percent said it was "a step down" for them.

It "suggests people have gotten too optimistic," said John Rother, a spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons. "Really only a small minority have put away the savings that allow people to pursue their dreams."

The Pew project overlaps with Clinton's plan to promote 1998 as a year of public dialogue on Social Security. It will be the topic of his weekly radio address Saturday, and Clinton has asked the AARP and the economic watchdog group Concord Coalition to sponsor four regional town hall meetings, starting April 7 in Kansas City, Mo.

The president's promise to follow up next year by asking Congress to make changes to prepare Social Security for baby boomers' retirements has roused activists from Wall Street brokerage houses to senior citizens centers, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

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Key congressional budgeteers Sen. William Roth, R-Del., and Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, are pushing legislation that would test a new system of private investment accounts.

Senate Democrats Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., this week proposed belt-tightening measures such as raising the retirement age to 70 and increasing the amount of wages subject to Social Security taxes.

Without change, baby boomers will overwhelm Social Security, and the program won't be able to pay all the benefits it owes after 2029.

Pew interviewed 2,006 Americans 18 and older by phone between Oct. 14 and Nov. 17, 1997, for the survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

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