Social Security reform should boost benefits and taxes, poll finds

It’s no surprise that a new public opinion survey would find broad public opposition to cutting Social Security benefits. But a survey released this week [PDF] by the National Academy of Social Insurance finds a strong majority of Americans actually support boosting benefits – and taxing themselves to pay for it.

The survey uses a polling technique called trade-off analysis to identify a package of preferred options. The NASI survey asked people about 12 ways to reform Social Security in a way that would close the program’s long-range financing gap. The choices included four revenue increases, four benefit cuts and four benefit increases.

The survey found that Americans don’t mind paying for Social Security; 86 percent said current benefits aren’t sufficient and 72 percent said we should consider increasing benefits. More than that, 77 percent said they support paying higher taxes on average Americans, and 83 percent said we should raise taxes on top earners.

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Support for this idea is remarkably strong across all demographic groups – by income, age and politial party:

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The most popular option would be to gradually eliminate the taxable earnings cap ($117,000 this year, and $118,500 in 2015); gradually raise the payroll tax rate paid by workers and employers to 7.2 percent over a 20 year period; increase cost-of-living adjustments; and raise the minimum benefit level for low-income seniors. Those changes also would eliminate 107 percent of Social Security’s long-range financing gap, leaving a margin of error.

NASI held a morning briefing yesterday in Washington to review and discuss the survey findings. I moderated a panel discussion discussing implications, featuring Andrea Campbell, a professor of political science at MIT; Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget; Virginia Reno, vice president for income security policy at NASI; and Maya Rockeymoore, CEO of Global Policy Solutions.

The panelists discussed the remarkable gap between public opinion and the consensus in Washington that Social Security reform must contain benefit cuts of some kind as a quid pro quo. Another discussion point focused on the finding that support for Social Security is nearly as strong among young Americans as it is among older people – giving lie to the oft-heard, but false media trope about inter-generational warfare. We also discussed the implications of boosting taxes on high earners – should they simply receive higher benefits in return, or have their benefits means tested.