In our public discussion

In our public discussion of Social Security, many take it for granted that time (in the sense of years, not months) favors Republicans because the young seem less resistant to privatization than their elders. But there is assumption at the root of this belief that I have never seen adequately examined in public opinion data.

Simply put: Are the young more favorable to privatization because they are currently young? Or does the current generation of Americans in their twenties and early thirties represent the leading edge of a wave of cultural change that will make future Americans less averse to risk and less trusting of government programs?

Perhaps twenty years from now, when these 25 year olds are 45, they’ll think more like 45 year olds today. After all, the young tend to have a difficult time really getting their heads around the idea that they too will one day grow old and die. That doesn’t mean we’re moving toward an immortality society; it means they’re young. They’ll learn.

Now, I’m sure there must be available time series data that would provide some insight into this question. I’m just not familiar with it. But I came across some information a few days ago that at least suggests some of our assumptions may be wrong.

A few days ago, I noted how a lot of the recent polling information on Social Security is difficult to use because many of the questions are ones the pollsters have just started asking. So we have no point of reference to what people thought in January of this year or January 2004 or in January 2000.

But if you look at the data in the recent New York Times poll you can see a few of the questions were also asked in June 1981.

One of those questions, which the Times pollsters apparently hadn’t asked in twenty-four years was: “Would you favor or oppose making the Social Security system voluntary, so that people can choose not to pay Social Security taxes and not to get benefits?”

Last month, 37% favored the idea and 59% opposed it. In late June of ’81, 53% favored it and only 41% opposed.

Another question was: “Do you expect to get back more money than you’ve contributed to Social Security, less money than you contributed, or about the same amount of money?”

Last month, 12% said more, 39% less and 44% said the same. In 1981 it was 15%, 50% and 28%, respectively.

Clearly, in both cases, public opinion was significantly different and in both instances less favorable toward or less confident in Social Security than Americans are today.

On two other questions, there change was minimal. The one question for which the Times has regular data going back to 1981 was: “Do you think the Social Security system will have the money available to provide the benefits you expect for your retirement?”

Last month it was 34% yes and 49% no. In 1981 it was 30% yes and 54%.

Here, as noted, there’s less change. But even that cuts against (though we’d have to see the break-out data) the idea that today’s youth have less confidence in the system than earlier generations.

Now, one point that’s fair to bear in mind is that 1981 was shortly before Social Security did require a major reform (the 1983 Greenspan Commission one) to maintain solvency. So perhaps that fact skews the numbers. But I’m not sure how much it should have affected the question about making Social Security voluntary. And on the ‘Do you think Social Security will be there when you retire’ question, the Times has fairly regular soundings going back two decades. And the numbers seem fairly stable over time. The ‘worst’ sample came from 1990 when 60% thought Social Security wouldn’t be there for them when they retired. But in not one case did more people answer ‘Yes’ than ‘No’.

If you were in your early 30s in 1981 and you were one of the 54% who said, no, well, you were just wrong. Heck, even the chief phase-out man himself, President Bush, says he’ll give you a flat guarantee.

Certainly, there must be more information and analysis available on this question. And I’d be curious to see it. But this limited glimpse increases my skepticism about the prevailing assumptions about youth attitudes toward Social Security and what it foretells for the program’s future.