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Social Security 75th Anniversary Survey Report: Public Opinion Trends

The latest assessment of Social Security by the American public continues to reflect the strong support that has also characterized three earlier assessments. All four AARP surveys—conducted to celebrate the 50th (1985), 60th (1995), 70th (2005), and 75th (2010) anniversaries of Social Security’s founding—have demonstrated the high regard that the American public has for Social Security as an important American institution, not only for America’s retired citizens, but for the entire American adult population.

On the 75th anniversary of Social Security, public support for the program remains exceedingly high. Consistent with previous anniversary surveys in 2005, 1995, and 1985, a majority of adults age 18 and older believe Social Security is one of the most important government programs and that it provides financial security to older Americans and helps them remain independent. While many are concerned about the future of Social Security, their lack of confidence does not diminish their support for it. In addition, misperceptions may fuel some of the public anxiety about the future of Social Security. For example, few understand that Social Security will still be able to pay reduced benefits even when the Trust Fund is exhausted. Moreover, the public is inclined to pay more to get the same benefits as today than to see benefits reduced. Given the importance Americans place on Social Security, it is not surprising that they overwhelmingly oppose cutting it to help reduce the federal deficit.

The following themes emerge from the survey’s key findings:

  • Lack of confidence in the future of Social Security is not equivalent to lack of support for it. Despite skepticism about the future of the program, most plan to rely on it. Even among those non-retirees who are not too or not at all confident about the future of the Social Security system (635 respondents), 84% agree with the statement that “Maybe I won’t need Social Security when I retire, but I definitely want to know it’s there just in case I do.” In addition, the overall public’s low level of confidence in the future of Social Security (35% are very or somewhat confident in the future of the program) is not surprising since the public has been informed of the upcoming “exhaustion” of the Social Security Trust Fund for years but nearly eight in ten adults believe either that Social Security will not be able to pay any benefits when the fund is exhausted or they do not know whether it will be able to do so. Clearly, Americans rely on Social Security and expect it to be a source of income in their retirement. In fact, it is the most commonly cited largest source of retirement income among adults. A majority of adults believe their family would be hard hit if Social Security were cut while few believe most people on Social Security could do very well without it.
  • Americans place a high value on Social Security and support more revenue for it even in a time when concerns about the federal deficit and government spending are high. Half of non-retired adults would be willing to pay more now in payroll taxes to ensure Social Security will be there for today’s older people and a similar proportion would be willing to do so to ensure it will be there for them when they retire. At the same time, half of Americans believe the average benefit is too low and a majority would prefer to pay more into Social Security to get the same level of benefits as today than to have benefit cuts. 
  • Although they are far from claiming Social Security retirement benefits, younger Americans are very supportive of the program. While younger Americans lack confidence in Social Security more than older Americans, they value the program. Nine in ten adults under age 30 believe Social Security is an important government program, and over nine in ten want to know it is there when they retire just in case they need it.

The results of the Social Security 75thAnniversary Survey are based on 1,200 responses to a telephone survey conducted July 15th to July 27th, 2010 by  GfK Roper among adults at least 18 years old. For more information, please contact Colette Thayer at (202) 434-6294.  (48 pages)

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