Social Security

The Social Security Board of Trustees has reported for some years now that as the Baby Boom generation has been retiring, the cost of benefits have been superseding revenues, depleting the Social Security’s Trust Fund. This is known as the Social Security “shortfall”. The most recent report concluded that if no changes are made to Social Security revenues and/or benefits, by 2035 the Trust Fund will be fully depleted and current benefit levels will have to be reduced by 21%. 

Nonetheless, there have been no reforms to Social Security since 1983. Social Security is often characterized as being a “third rail,” meaning that policymakers are afraid that any change to the Social Security system will elicit a severe public backlash. 

In addition to the problem of the Social Security shortfall, there are also voices calling for an increase in the minimum Social Security benefits for workers who have worked for 30 years. The current minimum benefit level is below the poverty line.

National Sample: 714 registered voters
Margin of Error: +/- 3.7%
Fielded: July 2 – August 12, 2015

There were also oversamples of 1,542 respondents from Virginia, Maryland, Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, Oklahoma and Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District. This data can be found in the questionnaire.

Questionnaire with Frequencies (PDF)
Full Report (PDF)

Proposals with bipartisan support discussed below include:

  • Reducing or eliminating the USPS’ retirement pre-funding requirement
  • Allowing USPS to offer a wider range of products and services
  • Allowing USPS to close a number of their unprofitable offices
  • Eliminating Saturday letter delivery
  • Mandating or promoting the voluntary conversion of door-delivery mailboxes to curbside or cluster boxes
  • Requiring that, in the event of labor disputes, arbitrators take into account the USPS’ long-term financial stability
  • Allowing postal rates to rise faster than inflation

ADDRESSING THE SHORTFALL


Overall, bipartisan majorities supported four options that would reduce the Social Security shortfall. Combined, including silver and gold levels of support, the proposed steps would eliminate 105% of the shortfall. Including only gold levels of support, the proposed steps would eliminate 66% of the shortfall. Majorities also increased the minimum benefit which increased the shortfall by 7%.

One option for reducing benefits is to reduce the amount of benefits that people with higher earnings will receive when they retire in the future.

Currently, the more people earned while working (up to $117,000), the more they receive in monthly benefits. One option—for new retirees only—is to gradually lower benefits for people who had higher earnings. Their benefits would still be higher than people who had lower earnings, but their benefits would be less than people in that income group are currently scheduled to receive.

Two pro and two con arguments were presented. While the pro arguments were found convincing by majorities from both parties, for Republicans these were bare majorities. 

Both con arguments were found convincing by large majorities from both parties.

Respondents were asked to evaluate the acceptability of each tiered level of the proposal using a 0-10 scale, with 5 being “just tolerable”. Reducing benefits for the top 25% of earners (average lifetime earnings of $65,500 a year or more) was found at least tolerable (5-10) by 60%, including two thirds of Democrats and a bare majority of Republicans (52%).

Reducing benefits for the top 40% of earners was found at least tolerable by less than four in ten, including just 31% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats. Even smaller percentages found the proposal to reduce benefits for the top 50% of earners tolerable.

In making their final recommendations --  whether to reduce benefits for the top 25%, top 40% or top 50% of earners, or not reduce benefits for any of those groups -- three in four chose one of the options to reduce benefits. Three quarters (76%) chose an option of 25% or more, including 72% of Republicans and 81% of Democrats.  Less than half (31%) chose the 40% level or higher (Republicans 28%, Democrats 35%). 

Interestingly, when making their final recommendation a larger percentage of respondents recommended reducing benefits for at least the top 25% of earners, than found that proposal at least tolerable -- a 16 point difference. 

Response Without Undergoing Policymaking Simulation
When a separate sample was told the results of the survey above, 65% said they agreed with the majority position, including 59% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats. (PPC 2018)

Related Standard Polls 
Standard polls have found resistance to reducing benefits in general, including those with “higher incomes.” 

  • Asked to think “about the long term future of Social Security”, and whether “some reductions for future retirees need to be considered,” 70% chose the option that “benefits should not be reduced in any way” including 67% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats. (March 2016, Pew)
  • Asked about “address(ing) financial concerns about the Social Security program,” less than half (43%) favored “reducing Social Security benefits for seniors with higher incomes” (46% opposed), including 36% of Republicans (51% opposed). Among Democrats, 46% wre in favor, and 43% opposed..  (September 2013, AP-NORC)

When asked about reducing benefits for “wealthy” retirees as a way to decrease the budget deficit, support has been higher, but not always a majority:

  • As a means to “reduce the budget deficit,” 54% favored, “Reducing Social Security benefits for wealthy retirees,” including 53% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats. (November 2010, CNN/ORC)
  • As a means to “reduce the federal budget deficit,” the public was divided (49% to 49%) on “Reducing Social Security benefits for wealthy retirees.” Just under half of Republicans (45%) and Democrats (47%) were in favor, as were a bare majority of independents (52%). (December 2010, ABC News/Washington Post)

Support increases to a substantial and bipartisan majority when reducing benefits for “wealthy” retirees is framed as a means to help fix Social Security:

  • Asked to assume that “there would be no change in Social Security benefits for those who are now age 55 or older,“ “to address the concerns with the Social Security system” 63% thought that “limiting benefits for wealthy retirees” was a good idea, including 56% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats. (July 2010, Gallup)

They were told that, according to current law, there are scheduled increases to the full retirement age as follows:

Currently, the full retirement age is 66 years. According to current law, it is scheduled to gradually rise until it reaches 67 by the year 2027 and then will stop rising. This has no effect on those already receiving Social Security. It does affect those born in 1960 or later.

Respondents were then presented two arguments for and two arguments against increasing the full retirement age. Substantial majorities found convincing both the arguments for and against.

They were then asked to evaluate the acceptability of continuing the current process of gradually raising the retirement age until it reaches 68 (reduces shortfall 15%), 69 (21%), or 70 (29%), using a 0-10 scale, with 5 being “just tolerable.

Raising the age to 68 was found at least tolerable (5-10) by 62%, including 65% of Republicans and 61% of Democrats.  For raising the age to 69, just under half (49%) found it at least tolerable, including 52% of Republicans,  and a minority of Democrats 47%.  For raising the age to 70, less than half (43%) found it at least tolerable ( Republicans 47%, Democrats 41%).

When making their final recommendation -- whether to raise the eligibility age to 68, 69 or 70, or not raise it at all -- an overwhelming majority of 79% recommended raising the full retirement age to 68 or higher, including 78% of Democrats as well as 81% of Republicans. 

On raising the age to 69, just 41% approved (Republicans 43%, Democrats 38%). Raising the age to 70 was recommended by 23% (Republicans 28%, Democrats 20%).

Response Without Undergoing Policymaking Simulation
When a separate sample was told the results of the survey above, 54% said they agreed with the majority position, including 61% of Republicans and 49% of Democrats. (PPC 2018). 

Related Standard Polls
Majorities, often bipartisan, have opposed raising the age at which people become eligible for Social Security, even as a way to reduce the deficit:

  • As a means to, “address financial concerns about the Social Security program,” respondents were asked whether they favor or oppose, “gradually raising the age at which people can begin receiving Social Security benefits.” Nationally, 60% opposed, including 58% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats. (September 2013, AP-NORC)
  • Told to think, “about ways to reduce the deficit and size of the national debt” and asked about the option to “Gradually raising the age at which people can begin receiving Social Security benefits,” 56% disapproved, including a majority of Democrats (67%) with Republicans divided . (December 2012, Pew)
  • Told that, “some members of a federal panel have proposed cutting some federal programs and changing the tax laws in order to reduce the budget deficit,” respondents were asked whether they favor or oppose, “Increasing the age at which people are eligible to receive their full Social Security benefits.” Nationally, 66% were opposed, including 64% of Republicans and 69% of Democrats. (November 2010, CNN/ORC)
  • Asked to assume that “there would be no change in Social Security benefits for those who are now age 55 or older,” and asked about “increasing the age at which people are eligible to receive full benefits” 64% said it was a “bad idea”, including 63% of both Democrats and Republicans. (2010 Gallup)
  • Asked whether they favor, “Raising the eligibility age for Social Security,” 54% opposed. Partisan breakouts were not provided. (April 2013, Fox)
  • Asked whether they support, “Gradually raising the Social Security retirement age so that by the year 2075 the retirement age is sixty-nine,” 51% opposed and 34% favored, with 13% choosing the middle option “neutral”. Partisan breakouts were not provided. (November 2014, NBC/Wall Street Journal)

At present both workers and employers pay a tax of 6.2% on the amount of an employee’s salary and wages subject to the payroll tax. Self‐employed people pay both the employer and employee share.

They were then presented options for gradually increasing the tax rate .05% per year for both the employer and the employee, rising ultimately to 6.6%, 6.9% or 7.2%. They were told the impact of these increases on the monthly payroll taxes of an individual with an income of $39,000 would be $13, $22, and $32, respectively.

Large majorities nationally found convincing both the arguments for and against raising the payroll tax rate. 

Respondents were asked to assess the acceptability of raising the payroll tax rate to 6.6% over a period of 8 years (reducing the shortfall by 17%) on the 0-10 scale. Over two thirds (69%) found it at least tolerable (5-10), including 65% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats. 

For raising the payroll tax to 6.9% (covers 33% of shortfall) 63% found it at least tolerable, including majorities form both parties (Republicans 59%, Democrats 70%).

Raising the payroll tax to 7.2% (covers 49% of shortfall) was found at least tolerable by a modest majority (55%), including 62% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans.

When asked for their final recommendation -- whether to raise the payroll tax to 6.6%, 6.9% or 7.2%, or not raise it at all -- three quarters nationally (76%) recommended raising the payroll tax rate to 6.6% or higher, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats (72% and 80%, respectively). 

Less than half (42%) recommended increasing the payroll tax to 6.9%, including 39% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats. Just 19% increased it to 7.2% (Republicans 17%, Democrats 22%).

Response Without Undergoing Policymaking Simulation
When a separate sample was told the results of the survey above, 63% said they agreed with the majority position, including 57% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats. (PPC 2018)

Related Standard Polls 
Asked directly about raising payroll taxes, large majorities are highly resistant. 

  • Asked about “increasing Social Security taxes for all workers” in order “to address concerns with the Social Security system,” 65% said it was a “bad idea”, including 71% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats. (2010 Gallup)

Posed as a choice between raising taxes and cutting benefits, a very slight majority goes for raising taxes, but many do not provide an answer.

  • Asked to choose in 2015 between two approaches for “ensuring Social Security’s long-term future,” “raise Social Security taxes” or “curb the amount of benefits for future Social Security recipients” 51% chose to raise taxes while 37% went for curbing benefits.  A large 12% did not provide an answer. Partisan breakouts were not provided. (2015 Gallup)

Status of Legislation
The proposal to raise the Social Security payroll tax is in the Social Security 2100 Act (H.R. 860, S. 269), sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) in the current 116th Congress. It would increase the payroll tax by 0.1 points each year until it reaches 7.4% for both employee and employer in 2042.  These bills have not made it out of committee.

In making their final recommendations, respondents could raise the cap to $215,000, eliminate the cap, or do neither.  

An overwhelming 88% either raised the cap to $215,000 or eliminated it entirely. This included 84% of Republicans as well as 92% of Democrats. 

A majority of 59% eliminated the cap entirely, including 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats.

Response Without Undergoing Policymaking Simulation
When a separate sample was told the results of the survey above, 75% said they agreed with the majority position to increase the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax from $113,700 to $215,000, including 70% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats. Asked whether they agreed with the majority position to eliminate the cap, 63% agreed, including 55% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats. (PPC 2018)

Related Standard Polls
To address problems of the Social Security program majorities have favored raising or eliminating the cap on income subject to the payroll tax, or simply raising the payroll tax for high earners.  

  • To “address financial concerns about the Social Security program” 64% favored “raising the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, so that those with higher incomes pay taxes on more of their wages,” including 48% of Republicans (40% opposed) and 76% of Democrats. (September 2013, AP-NORC)
  • To “address concerns with the Social Security system” 67% said “requiring higher income workers to pay Social Security taxes on all of their wages,” was a “good idea”, including 60% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats. (July 2010, Gallup)

When framed as a means to reduce the federal deficit, a bipartisan majority has favored eliminating the cap:

  • As a means “to help close the federal budget deficit” 61% favored the proposal to “eliminate the cap on Social Security payroll taxes so those earning more than 107 thousand dollars pay the same rate as everyone else,” 63% were in favor, including 59% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats. (July 2010, Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future)

When framed as a means to prevent spending cuts driven by sequestration legislation, majorities have favored increasing the payroll tax of high earners.  

  • Asked whether, “to avoid further spending cuts,” as part of sequestration, it would be acceptable to, “Increase the Social Security tax for high wage earners,” 66% said it was acceptable, including 53% of Republicans and 77% of Democrats. (December 2013, McClatchy/Marist)

 Status of Legislation
A proposal to raise and eventually eliminate the cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax is in the Social Security 2100 Act, sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D) (H.R. 860) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) (S. 269) in the 116th Congress. It would subject income above $400,000 to the Social Security payroll tax. This would create a “donut hole” of income that is not subject to the payroll tax -- between the current cap of $132,900 and the new floor of $400,000. Over time, as the cap rises which it does automatically each year, this donut hole would disappear, thus subjecting all income to the payroll tax. Previous House versions of this bill were introduced in 2014, 2015 and 2017. These bills have not made it out of committee.

A similar proposal is in the Social Security Expansion Act by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) (H.R. 1170) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) (S. 478) in the 116th Congress, which would subject income above $250,000 to the payroll tax, and as the “donut hole” closes, eventually all income would be subject to the payroll tax. These bills have not made it out of committee.

Respondents were introduced to a proposal, put forward by the Social Security administration, to ensure Social Security’s solvency by increasing its revenues through raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax. 

Respondents were told:

One option is to raise the maximum amount of salary and wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax (also known as raising the cap). Currently the amount of salary and wages that is subject to the Social Security payroll tax includes up to $117,000 per year. By this plan, the cap on salary and wages would rise, thus increasing the amount of taxes paid, but the corresponding benefits would also rise.

In response to arguments, substantial majorities found convincing the argument in favor of raising the cap (73%), with more modest majorities finding the argument against it convincing (61%). 

Respondents were then asked to assess how acceptable it would be to raise the cap from $113,700 to $215,000 over ten years (reduces shortfall by 27%) using a 0-10 scale, with 5 being “just tolerable”. It was found at least tolerable (5-10), by 78% (Republicans 73%, Democrats 84%).

Respondents were then introduced to the option of eliminating the cap on income subject to the payroll tax:

This proposal would make ALL salary and wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax. This would also increase the benefits paid to these people who pay more in Social Security taxes. This would reduce the Social Security shortfall by 66%.

They evaluated pro and con arguments for this proposal as well. Interestingly, the argument for eliminating the cap entirely did better than the argument for raising the cap, with 82% finding it convincing, including 75% of Republicans and 91% of Democrats (66% very). 

Equally striking, the argument against eliminating the cap was by far the least convincing argument presented in the entire survey, with just 43% finding it convincing, including just 32% of Democrats. Only among Republicans did a majority find it convincing (54%).

Asked to assess how acceptable it would be to eliminate the cap using a 0-10 scale, responses were strikingly similar to the proposal of raising the cap—in fact views were slightly more favorable. Nationally, 64% found it acceptable (6-10), including majorities of Republicans and Democrats (59%, 71%). 

INCREASING BENEFITS

Respondents were introduced to an option:

...to raise the benefit for those receiving the minimum benefit Currently, the minimum Social Security benefit for someone who has worked 30 years or more is $800 a month. The proposal is to raise this minimum to $1,216 a month. This would be 125% of the poverty line.

This proposal would increase the Social Security shortfall by 7%. 

Majorities found arguments both for and against this option convincing. 

Respondents were asked to rate how acceptable the proposal would be using a 0-10 scale. It was found at least tolerable (5-10) by 69% (Republicans 62%, Democrats 76%).

In their final recommendation, a clear majority nationally (58%) recommended raising the minimum benefit. Among Democrats, a large majority was in favor (67%), while Republicans were divided (49% - 51%).

Response Without Undergoing Policymaking Simulation
When a separate sample was told the results of the survey above, 75% said they agreed with the majority position, including 73% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats. (PPC 2018)

Status of Legislation
The proposal to increase the minimum Social Security benefit to 125% of the federal poverty line is currently in the Social Security 2100 Act sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D) (H.R. 860) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) (S. 269) in the 116th Congress. Previous House versions of this bill were introduced in 2014, 2015 and 2017. These bills have not made it out of committee. 

The proposal is also in the Social Security Expansion Act by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) (H.R. 1170) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) (S. 478) in the 116th Congress. These bills have not made it out of committee.