Deficits, Social Security, and the American Public

We have carefully reviewed the best available survey-based evidence concerning public opinion on budget deficits and Social Security. Elected officials ignore the public's wishes at their peril.
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By Benjamin I. Page and Lawrence R. Jacobs

Memo to Pete Peterson: Americans don't want cuts Social Security - and here's the proof.

Deficit-hawk and investment banker Pete Peterson has devoted a substantial part of his $2.8 billion fortune to pushing for cuts in entitlements like Social Security, in the name of deficit reduction. His Foundation lavishly funded the AmericaSpeaks "town hall" forums held on Saturday, the results of which will be presented to the national Deficit Commission this week -- purporting to tell what the American public thinks about various deficit-reduction options.

The AmericaSpeaks forums suffered from serious defects as measures of public opinion. Yet the results, perhaps to Peterson's surprise, correctly indicated that Americans are strongly committed to Social Security. Large majorities oppose cutting Social Security benefits, even for the sake of deficit reduction.

The AmericaSpeaks town halls failed to convene a representative sample of Americans: they opened their doors to self-selected political activists with extreme views, possibly hoping to draw Tea Party backers. Their intense emphasis on reducing budget deficits "primed" participants to focus on deficits rather than on the needs of retirees when evaluating Social Security policy. The information provided to participants was one-sided, speculative, and in some cases quite misleading: it overstated the "crisis" in Social Security funding, understated the current burden of payroll taxes on ordinary workers, and failed to convey the extent to which millions of retirees count on stable, dependable Social Security benefits. The policy options that were discussed tilted rightwards.

These town halls -- like deliberative forums in general -- should not be taken as accurate measures of "true" or "deliberative" public opinion. Carefully designed and carefully interpreted opinion surveys, based on representative samples from the whole country and carried out in natural settings rather than the artificial and manipulable "fish bowl" of town hall meetings, can do a much better job of revealing what the American public thinks.

Remarkably, however, AmericaSpeaks got lucky (or perhaps, from Peterson's point of view, unlucky.) Despite all the biases, on several issues town hall participants came up with opinions not very different from those that have been expressed by majorities of Americans in dozens of well-designed national surveys. Participants opposed cuts in Social Security benefits, insisting that benefits must be preserved when balancing the budget. They wanted to strengthen the economy, favoring the current stimulus bill (stalled in the Senate) by a margin of 51% to 38%. In order to reduce budget deficits, most favored cutting defense spending and enacting progressive tax measures: raising the payroll tax "cap" so that incomes over $106,800 are subject to the tax (85% in favor); raising high-end corporate and personal income taxes; and imposing new taxes on carbon and on securities transactions. Only on the Social Security retirement age did the results conspicuously stray from actual public opinion.

We have carefully reviewed the best available survey-based evidence concerning public opinion on budget deficits and Social Security. It is this evidence, which provides a fuller, more representative, and more accurate picture of Americans' thinking, that the Deficit Commission and others should pay attention to.

For decades, for example, highly respected studies by the General Social Survey and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs have found large majorities of Americans wanting to expand rather than cut back spending on Social Security. In the most recent CCGA survey, for example, 69% said the program should be "expanded," and only 10% said "cut back."

Support for Social Security is found in virtually all segments of the American population. The opinion that "too little" is being spent on Social Security is shared by majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; by majorities of men as well as women; by whites as well as African Americans or Latinos; by people with a lot of formal education as well as people with little. Most important, support is very strong among young (age 18-29) Americans, fully 63% of whom told the most recent GSS that we are spending "too little" on Social Security. The supposed generation gap on Social Security is mostly a myth. There is no intergenerational war between "greedy geezers" and the young.

Even when survey questions prime respondents to focus on budget deficits, large majorities of Americans oppose the idea of cutting Social Security benefits for the sake of deficit reduction. Early this year a survey by National Review/ McLaughlin (certainly not prone to a left-wing bias) found that only 11% of Americans approved "cutting future benefits of Social Security" to reduce government spending: fully 86% opposed. Similar results have been found within the last year or so by Democracy Corps/ Greenberg Quinlan; Bloomberg; Quinnipiac; EBRI/ Greenwald, and others.

When survey questions are asked in a reasonably unbiased fashion, majorities of Americans also express opposition to virtually any sort of specific cut or postponement of benefits. This includes reducing COLAs (only a bare majority would even "consider" this possibility, according to Bloomberg), or increasing the retirement age. Earlier this year, Democracy Corps/ Greenberg Quinlan found a solid 63% of Americans opposed to "allowing the Social Security retirement age for receiving full benefits to rise slowly to age 70 by the year 2020″; only 35% favored this, even when it was posed as a proposal "to help close the federal budget deficit." To be sure, EBRI/ Greenwald found a bare, 51% to 47% majority in favor of "raising the age at which people can begin receiving full Social Security retirement benefits by one year," but the question did not specify from what level the age would be raised: perhaps just from age 65, which the 1983 law is already doing.

Thus the sole non-progressive policy option that the AmericaSpeaks forums seemed to support - raising the Social Security retirement age to 69, apparently favored by a bare majority (52%) of forum participants - may not actually be favored by a majority of Americans. On this and other questions, careful scrutiny of AmericaSpeaks' methods is called for, including the unrepresentativeness of their participants and the biases in information presented and options discussed.

Finally, abundant evidence from surveys over the years by Bloomberg, NASI, the present authors, Pew, Quinnipiace, and CBS/NYT have all found that majorities of Americans favor raising or eliminating the payroll tax "cap" on high incomes. Most recently, Bloomberg found 78% of Americans saying that removing the cap entirely should be "considered." Last summer, NASI found that fully 83% of Americans supported "lift[ing]" the cap "so that workers earning more than [the cap] would pay Social Security tax on their entire salary just like everyone else." This one policy change, by itself, would erase most of the projected future deficit in the Social Security trust fund.

We believe that public opinion should be taken seriously by policy makers. Indeed, elected officials ignore the public's wishes at their peril. In assessing public opinion on deficits and Social Security, we urge that the Deficit Commission and others to take the AmericaSpeaks forums with a large grain of salt, even if they happened to come close to the truth on several points. To get a full and accurate picture of what Americans want, it is important to consult a wide range of survey-based evidence and expertise.

*This post was based on the Roosevelt Institute Working Paper, "Understanding Public Opinion on Deficits and Social Security." Full text available here.

Benjamin I. Page is Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University and coauthor (with Robert Y. Shapiro) of "The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans' Policy Preferences."

Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. He has written numerous books and articles on public opinion and other aspects of American politics.

This post originally appeared one New Deal 2.0

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