Opinion Study: Attitudes about Social Security Reform

President George W. Bush's intention to reform the Social Security system has put the issue in the spotlight again. To better assess the public's reaction to possible changes, the American Enterprise Institute recently released a new Public Opinion Study "Attitudes about Social Security Reform," by AEI resident fellow Karlyn Bowman.

Gleaned from the hundreds of questions that have been asked about Social Security over the years, this new AEI Public Opinion Study will be updated weekly as new polls are made available.

Among the findings:

  • People's expectations about their retirement have changed over the years. Several questions asked over time confirm that today people are more likely to say that their pensions or private savings will be a major source of retirement income rather than Social Security.

  • Confidence in the future of the Social Security system has been lacking for a long time. A question asked in 1981 shows that only 31 percent had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence that the Social Security system would have enough money to pay benefits after the year 2000! Still, Americans do not see the Social Security system in crisis. They believe it has serious problems.

  • The concept of personal retirement accounts has been on the pollsters' radar screens for less than a decade. "Attitudes about Social Security Reform" examines how various pollsters have approached the issue and includes a large collection of questions used in major polls. Responses vary depending on what is emphasized in the questions. The surveys show that part of the appeal of personal retirement accounts is that people like the idea of having choices and like making those choices themselves. While people say that individuals should be responsible for the losses they incur with these accounts, the poll questions are hypothetical and may not be reliable.

  • The surveys collected here show that personal retirement accounts are more popular than other reforms -- such as raising the payroll tax or the retirement age -- which have been proposed to shore up the Social Security system. But these findings should be interpreted carefully. In 1983, the legislation to address the Social Security system's shortfall included a provision to gradually raise the age at which individual could qualify for full benefits. There was no public outcry.

  • Which party fares best? Democrats lead Republicans on handling Social Security, but the numbers are more even when people are asked which party can better handle retirement and investments.

A final word: Polls are too blunt to be used to make policy -- whether Social Security or any other topic. Polls can, however, provide a sense of how and what Americans think about an issue. That is what this public opinion study is intended to do.

"Attitudes about Social Security Reform" is one of a series of AEI studies on public opinion by Karlyn Bowman. The studies include trend data from most major pollsters in the United States and are updated regularly as new polls become available.

The full text of the study is available at: www.aei.org/publicopinion4

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