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Americans' Attitudes Towards Social Security: Popular Claims Meet Hard Data

By: Fay Lomax Cook and Lawrence R. Jacobs
Published: March 2001
Social Security Brief No. 10 ~ March 2001

Summary: This research examined three common claims about public attitudes towards Social Security, drawing on opinion surveys conducted over the last two decades. The first claim is that public confidence in Social Security is steadily declining. The evidence shows that Americans' confidence in the future of Social Security has fluctuated over the last 25 years. It rose between 1996 and 2000, when about half of Americans said they were "very" or "somewhat" confident in the future of Social Security. The second claim is that eroding confidence leads to declining support for Social Security. About 90 percent of Americans consistently say they support current or higher levels of spending for Social Security. Third, it is sometimes claimed that declining confidence and support lead most Americans to favor individual accounts as part of Social Security. In this case, the results depend on the way questions are framed. Americans are receptive to the idea when the plan is described solely as an option for more choice and more income. But support weakens when tradeoffs — such as market risks, transition costs, and possible benefit reductions — are mentioned.

As plans are fleshed out and tradeoffs become more clear, it will be important to monitor Americans' views as they move toward informed judgment about the kind of Social Security program they want for the future.