“At a time when the nation seems deeply divided about the proper size and role of government, Americans show remarkably widespread agreement on Social Security,” said Virginia Reno, the Academy’s Vice President for Income Security Policy and co-author of the new study, Americans Make Hard Choices on Social Security: A Survey with Trade-Off Analysis[PDF], which was supported by the Ford Foundation and the Tufts Health Plan Foundation.
In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a total of 1.4 million people (or about 18% of the population) receive Social Security benefits, according to December 2013 figures. Their average benefit amount is $1,204 a month, or just under $14,500 a year. On an annual basis, that brought $20.5 billion in income to the area – 4.7% of all personal income in the two states combined, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Americans of all ages value Social Security’s protections, and for seniors in particular – who make up one million of the area’s beneficiaries – its dependable income is vital for healthy aging. As documented in the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report, approximately 28% of the population age 65 and older have incomes less than $20,000 per year. As such, for this population Social Security is the primary source of income.
Large majorities of survey participants, both Republicans and Democrats, agree on ways to strengthen Social Security – without reducing benefits. Fully 69% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats agree “it is critical to preserve Social Security benefits for future generations even if it means increasing the Social Security taxes paid by working Americans.”
When asked the same question about top earners, 71% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats agree that they could pay more. Social Security taxes are paid by workers and their employers on earnings, but only up to a cap ($118,500 in 2015). About 6% of workers earn more than the cap.
Majorities oppose measures to balance Social Security’s future finances by reducing benefits. Fully 75% of respondents oppose increasing the retirement age to 70; and 76% oppose reducing the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that retirees receive.
To gauge Americans’ policy preferences, the survey used trade-off analysis — a technique that is widely used in market research to learn which product features consumers want and are willing to pay for. The trade-off exercise allowed survey participants to choose among different packages of Social Security changes. As lawmakers would do, they weighed how each policy change would affect workers, retirees, and the program’s future financing gap, and then chose among different packages of reforms. Seven out of 10 participants prefer a package that would eliminate Social Security’s long-term financing gap without cutting benefits. The preferred package would:
Gradually, over 10 years, eliminate the cap on earnings taxed for Social Security. With this change, the 6% of workers who earn more than the cap would pay into Social Security all year, as other workers do. In return, they would get somewhat higher benefits.
Gradually, over 20 years, raise the Social Security tax rate that workers and employers each pay from 6.2% of earnings to 7.2%. A worker earning $50,000 a year would pay about 50 cents a week more each year, matched by the employer.
Increase Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the inflation experienced by seniors.
Raise Social Security’s minimum benefit so that a worker who pays into Social Security for 30 years or more can retire at 62 or later and have benefits above the federal poverty line.
Without any changes, Social Security would be able to pay only about three-quarters of scheduled benefits after 2033. This package would turn the projected financing gap into a small surplus, providing a margin of safety.
The package was preferred by large majorities across political parties and income levels. Fully 68% of Republicans, 74% of Democrats, and 73% of independents favor the package, as do 71% of study participants with incomes above $75,000 and 68% of those with incomes under $35,000.
“This study deserves close attention by lawmakers,” said James Roosevelt Jr., CEO of Tufts Health Plan and grandson of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed the original Social Security law in 1935. “To get to stronger reforms in our system, we need to negotiate with a better understanding of what people need and are willing to ‘trade-off.’ This survey gets us closer to that.”
About the survey: The survey was conducted online to facilitate use of the deliberative trade-off exercise. Greenwald & Associates partnered with the Academy to survey 2,013 Americans ages 21 and older between June 12 and 23, 2014. Participants were randomly selected from the Research Now consumer panel of nearly 2.2 million individuals. Results are weighted to reflect the U.S. adult population in the March 2013 Current Population Survey. The survey was released nationally in October 2014. The findings of this 2014 survey are consistent with a similar survey by the Academy in 2012, an indication of stability in Americans’ views on Social Security and how they want to remedy its future financing gap.
The National Academy of Social Insurance is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization made up of the nation’s leading experts on social insurance. Its mission is to advance solutions to challenges facing the nation by increasing public understanding of how social insurance contributes to economic security.