On Social Security, Pollsters Need To Ask The Right Questions

Isaiah J. Poole
On Social Security, Pollsters Need To Ask The Right Questions

Two polls released in the past 24 hours send decidedly different messages on Social Security. The lesson: Be careful what you ask.

One poll released Thursday by Bloomberg seems to show that a significant majority of the public would be willing to see Social Security benefits fall behind increases in the cost of living, which would reduce the value of benefits over time. That would be the effect of the “chained CPI,” the alternate cost-of-living-adjustment formula being considered by the Obama administration and heavily pushed by right-wingers in Congress.

That’s not quite how the question was asked, but for a poll question on this subject it was pretty clear: “Do you favor or oppose reducing the cost of living adjustment that automatically increases the amount of benefits Social Security pays out to help the program remain financially secure?” Sixty-four percent said they would favor such a move, while 27 percent said they would oppose.

That sounds as if an overwhelming majority of Americans are at least resigned, either willingly or unwillingly, to the idea of depending much less on Social Security for their overall retirement, but that this is a worthwhile sacrifice to help the program “remain financially secure.”

But another poll commissioned by the Pew Research Center and released Friday, by asking a different question, offers a contradictory message. That poll offers a menu of government programs and asks for which programs should spending be reduced, and what programs should see spending increases. In that poll 41 percent of respondents said they would increase spending on Social Security and another 46 percent said they would keep Social Security spending “the same,” most likely meaning no changes in how Social Security benefits are set. Only 10 percent said they would “decrease” spending on Social Security. That is the same percentage of respondents who said they were willing to see education spending cut, and only a percentage point higher than the least-popular cut, veterans’ benefits.

That poll found that rank-and-file Republicans disagreed with their party’s leadership on this issue. “More Republicans want to increase, rather than decrease, funding for Social Security (35% vs. 17%). And Republicans are as likely to say funding for Medicare should be increased as to say it should be decreased (24% vs. 21%).”

There are other polls that make it clear that majorities of the American public do not support cutting Social Security benefits. In November a poll by Democracy Corps asked if “reducing Social Security benefits over time by having them rise more slowly than the cost of living” would be acceptable. Respondents overwhelmingly said no, by a margin of 62 percent to 31 percent. Our Smart Talk on the proposal to reduce the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment has links to this and other recent polling on this and related questions.

The Bloomberg poll is clearly an outlier, perhaps influenced by the media drumbeat that Social Security is in crisis and that therefore drastic measures are needed to address that crisis. In reality, Social Security does not face an immediate financial crisis. But if we took actions to grow the economy, so that there are more employed people paying into the Social Security system, and asked high-earning individuals to pay payroll taxes on their earnings above $113,700, which they are exempted from paying today, those actions alone would significantly ensure Social Security’s long-term solvency.

It is also clear that Social Security supporters and the mainstream media need to do a better job of educating the public about what “reducing the cost-of-living adjustment” really means. This is not a matter of cutting the fat out of an overly generous benefit. Nor is it about more accurately matching the benefits seniors receive to their actual costs: if that were the argument, studies show we’d be looking to increase Social Security spending, as the respondents in the Pew poll agreed we should.

It would be instructive to have Bloomberg’s pollsters point people to the AARP’s Social Security calculator, which calculates how much of a benefit cut people would receive if the chained CPI proposal were implemented. I learned that my own benefit cut over 10 years, based on my current age and assuming I would start collecting benefits at age 62, would be $2,355. In other words, my Social Security check would each month fall $20 behind the overall cost of goods and services, and significantly farther behind the medical and housing costs that take up a disproportionate share of the costs elderly people bear.

Should Americans nearing retirement take a benefit cut of almost $2,400 or more over 10 years or almost $9,000 over 20 years, resulting in millions of retirees becoming increasingly financially insecure to allegedly “help the program remain financially secure”? Once you ask the right questions, few would say that makes any sense – not when there are common-sense alternatives.

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