Social Security Benefits: What Do Americans Really Think About It?

Social Security Benefits: What Do Americans Really Think About It?

Social Security, the most popular and successful social program in U.S. history, has been under political attack almost nonstop since Ronald Reagan was elected president. And not just Social Security, but the people whose payroll taxes support it and who collect benefits after they retire. Politicians like former Senator Alan Simpson denounce the elderly as “greedy geezers.” Right-wing columnist John Tierney characterizes Social Security as a siren that lures Americans into a lifestyle of “greed and sloth.”

If they only knew better—if only they’d listen to the experts—Americans would understand that the system they overwhelmingly depend on to support them in old age must be cut back or even privatized. Retirement itself may need to be eliminated. “Americans Need to Wake Up to the Reality About Retirement Dreams, Aetna Survey Reveals,” was the headline for a press release by the big insurance company in 1995, when privatization was coming into vogue. “What we’ve found is a nation tied up in knots, whose fears lead to a paralysis on Social Security reform,” the centrist Brookings Institution complained about the same time.

But are American really “tied up in knots” about Social Security?

I studied over 30 years of polling on Social Security while researching my book, The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan. What I concluded was that Americans’ opinions about this vitally important institution are remarkably consistent—and, whatever the politicians say, completely rational.

It’s long been a truism of Washington discourse on Social Security that raising the payroll tax that supports it is politically not doable. Yet Americans value Social Security so highly that they’re fine with paying more to keep it healthy. They don’t think it’s a ripoff. And they firmly oppose any cuts to the program.

In 1977, 56 percent said in a poll that they approved higher taxes if it would improve the program’s health. In a 1995 AARP survey, 71 percent thought Social Security taxes were “very fair” or “moderately fair.” A Roper Organization/CBS/New York Times poll the same year found that 55 percent of non-retirees were willing to pay more to ensure Social Security would still be there for them. Younger Americans, often portrayed as the ones whose pockets are being picked by those insatiable seniors, agreed by almost exactly the same percentage. Last August, more than half of respondents to an Associated Press poll said they’d prefer to pay a higher payroll tax than see their benefits cut.

Virtually everyone — 96 percent — who participated in that AARP survey said they “view Social Security as essential retirement income.” In 2010, when Simpson was co-chairing a presidential commission on deficit reduction that incorporated Social Security cuts into its proposals, 57 percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said they weren’t comfortable with one ingredient of the plan that would raise the retirement age—effectively, a cut in benefits.

What would they prefer to see cut instead? During the heyday of the Reagan era of sky-high defense spending, between 1982 and 1989, in five separate polls by Louis Harris and Associates, respondents said they would rather cut the Pentagon budget than Social Security by percentages ranging from 72 percent to 89 percent.

None of this means Americans are overly optimistic about Social Security. Indeed, they’ve long absorbed the message from the program’s critics that the program may not be there when they retire. A series of surveys for the American Council of Life Insurers conducted by Daniel Yankelovich and other pollsters found that, while 63 percent of respondents in 1975 were “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in Social Security, by 1994 the figure was down to 40 percent, although the results fluctuated considerably. Other surveys since then reflect that lower degree of confidence.

Yet this has never translated into dissatisfaction with the program, or a desire to see it radically changed. Or cut back. This despite the best efforts and enormous monetary investment over three decades of Social Security’s critics. Why?

One reason is that people who get Social Security — or are getting anywhere near that age — really, really need it. And have for a long time.

A startling finding by pollster John Zogby in 2004 showed that almost every U.S. population group was equally worried about becoming poor. Old and young, city dwellers and suburbanites, churchgoers and non-churchgoers, those who shopped at Walmart often and those who bought at Saks — the percentage who said they could imagine themselves becoming poor wavered between 54 percent and 61 percent for all of them. The only exceptions were those age 65 and older. Most Social Security recipients “don’t sweat their credit card balances at all,” Zogby found.

This anxiety—this feeling of semi-permanent economic precariousness—is part of the essential cultural fabric of our time, and it has only gotten worse in the years since the Great Recession began. A Gallup poll in 2010 found that 90 percent of people aged 44 to 75 agreed that the country faced a retirement crisis.

Many Americans, it appears, expect the government to lend a hand, whatever the costs and complications. A poll taken of members of the Occupy movement in New York’s Zuccotti Park in fall 2011 by the center-right political consultancy Penn, Schoen & Berland—not a sympathetic source—found that 65 percent of the activists agreed that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens a secure retirement, while 77 percent supported raising taxes on the wealthy.

So it’s no surprise that Americans cling fiercely to Social Security. But how can a majority of them doubt that Social Security will be there for them in coming decades, and still hold firm against cuts to the program? Isn’t this, as so many right-wing and center-right Washington opinion-makers assert, either irrational or extremely self-serving?

No. The remarkable steadiness of the positions Americans hold on Social Security, going back decades, stems from the fact they they see Social Security as politics—that is, a problem, but one they expect their elected officials to solve without upsetting an arrangement they’ve come to rely on. If the numbers are difficult to reconcile, that doesn’t mean the public doesn’t expect Washington to find a solution—only that they will punish politicians who try to do it the wrong way, regardless of what the latter regard as “politically doable.” If that sounds like squaring a circle, that should be no surprise—politicians are elected to do such things. If they can’t, they’re not doing their job.

The real mystery is why the dominant factions in Washington find this so hard to comprehend. One reason may be that these lawmakers, policy wonks, lobbyists, and upper-tier journalists tend to see Social Security—like many other things—as a quantitative puzzle rather than a human problem. The main issue, for them, is not how well Social Security serves a very large political constituency, but how to make the numbers work, hypothetically, over a prescribed actuarial period—and without raising payroll taxes, because that’s an idea Washington just can’t stomach.

This is the part that should trouble us. As John Mueller, an economic consultant and former Jack Kemp aide who has written about Social Security for years, notes, “Such divergence between the general public and the policy elite is a danger signal in a democracy. It usually means either that the public is impervious to information freely available to the policymakers; or that the policymakers are deviating from values broadly accepted by the community.” Social Security is one such value.

Eric Laursen is the author of  The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, 2012), from which this article is adapted. An independent journalist whose work has also appeared in The Village Voice, In These Times, Z Magazine, Institutional Investor, and The Nation, he blogs at He lives in western Massachusetts.

Photo: by Donkey Hotey via Flickr

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