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Social Security: Public Opinion, Guerilla Tactics, and a Policymaking Dilemma


Social Security cards

Social Security has long been seen as the ‘third rail of politics,’ but there has been a ‘breakdown’ in political consensus starting in the early 90s continuing through today.

“Social Security has long been seen as the ‘third rail of politics,’” said IPR social policy professor Fay Lomax Cook. “Touch it and you die.”

“But there has been a ‘breakdown’ in political consensus starting in the early 90s continuing through today—and policy elites have become much less supportive of Social Security than in the past,” Cook continued at a December 2 IPR colloquium.

In an IPR working paper on the evolution of public opinion and elite opinion about Social Security, Cook and IPR graduate research assistant Rachel Moskowitz describe how a conservative “guerilla” strategy of political rhetoric and issue counterframing has tried to chip away at the wall of public support for the program.

Signed into law in 1935 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Old Age Insurance, Social Security has developed and grown incrementally over time into the “very important” program it is now, Cook said.  Today, she notes how the program is the major source of income for more than half of all married beneficiaries, and three-quarters of single and 90 percent of low-income beneficiaries. Drawing funds from federal payroll taxes, the program’s asset reserves stood at $2.75 trillion in 2012. But beginning in 2033, projections show that the program will only be able to pay 77 percent of benefits.

“Social Security has a short-term funding surplus but a long-term budget deficit,” Cook said. She points to this divergence as “the policymaking dilemma” at the heart of Social Security politics.

A ‘Guerilla’ Strategy

Fay Lomax Cook
Fay Lomax Cook

Around the time of the 1983 amendments under President Reagan that saved the program from bankruptcy and eventually raised the age of full eligibility to 67, the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation developed a “guerrilla” strategy to alter the dynamics of political support, Cook said.

The coalition’s choice of arms involved targeted messages calling into question whether future beneficiaries would receive their full due and what a bad deal it was for younger generations. It sought to demonstrate the benefits of privatizing Social Security by efforts to expand individual retirement accounts and to emphasize potential business gains.

This became the blueprint for three waves of Republicans’ reframing efforts during during the Clinton, Bush, and then Obama administrations. Each time, the Republicans emphasized the “crisis” of Social Security going bankrupt, with the solution being privatization. The Democrats, on the other hand, cast the issue as a “long-range funding imbalance” with only incremental changes needed.

Have these two decades of debate and competitive counterframing affected Americans support for Social Security and proposed changes to deal with the funding issue?

What the Public Thinks

Cook and Moskowitz examine public opinion data from 1980 to 2012, covering the periods where Clinton called on the public to save Social Security in 1998, Bush called for its privatization in 2005, and Obama asked to reduce the deficit and shore up the program in 2009.

The researchers find that overall support has remained high over the years, with 90 percent or more of those surveyed saying that spending was too little or about right. Support is high by age, ideology, and party identification. However, once the figures are broken down by income, differences have begun to appear. For those who make up to $150,000 annually, only between 5 and 8 percent say that “too much” is being spent—but 17 percent of those making more than $150,000 think too much is being spent, and this percentage has more than doubled in recent years.

While Cook notes that they have not yet been able to break down the figures to account for the views of the top 1 percent, she suspects they would find even more dramatic declines in support the higher up the income ladder they climb.

Overall public support for the program has remained stable despite the competitive counterframing tactics, Cook said. Yet the growing gap in support by the nation’s wealthiest citizens could open up a door to dramatic changes due to the preponderance of their political influence with politicians, as documented by some political scientists.

“Does this gap matter?” Cook asked. “It bears careful watching.”

Fay Lomax Cook is a professor of human development and social policy and IPR fellow. The working paper can be read here.

Photo credits: Top photo courtesy of the Social Security Administration; photo of Fay Lomax Cook by Jim Ziv.