NPR Online
Social Security Survey Shows
Support for Some Private Accounts,
Political Risk with Other Reforms



Morning Edition,
May 20, 1999

Taking Care of Themselves,
Morning Edition,
May 21, 1999

All Things Considered,
May 20, 1999

Chile's Privatization Experience,
All Things Considered,
May 21, 1999

Other Countries' Experiences,
All Things Considered,
May 21, 1999

Social Security and the Political Process,
Weekend Edition Saturday,
May 22, 1999

The Gender Gap,
Weekend Edition Sunday,
May 23, 1999

Knowledge and Interest Groups,
Weekend All Things Considered,
May 23, 1999

Changing Views of Retirement,
Morning Edition,
May 24, 1999

Talk of the Nation Wrap-Up
Talk of the Nation,
May 24, 1999

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A new survey by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government shows that Americans are concerned about the long-term future of Social Security and want to make some changes to the system now. They are most interested in plans to invest some of their Social Security payments themselves, but they are unwilling to make difficult changes like reducing benefits or raising the retirement age. At the same time, the NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School survey shows that although Americans generally understand how Social Security works and why changes may be necessary over the next 30-40 years, they misunderstand some key elements of the system, and this misinformation may play a role in their policy preferences. NPR begins five days of coverage on May 20, 1999.

Key findings include:

  • Many Americans want private investment options for some Social Security funds. In fact, nearly two-thirds (65%) favor allowing people to have individual accounts and make their own investments with a portion of their Social Security payments ("partial privatization"). Even when they are told that investing in the stock market will mean "getting more money if their investments do well and less if they do poorly," 57% still favor it. However, Americans want to hedge their bets - 57% oppose allowing people to invest ALL of their Social Security taxes on their own.

  • Older Americans are much less likely than younger Americans to favor "partial privatization". Half (50%) of Americans over age 65 oppose it; 71% of Americans 18-29 favor it. Moreover, 34% of Americans 65 or older say they would vote against a member of Congress who supported such a plan.

  • Having the government invest a portion of Social Security funds in the stock market does not have much support; 38% favor it and 61% oppose it.

  • The Social Security debate takes place in a climate where the public has some major misperceptions. For instance, even though a substantial number of Americans will receive more in Social Security benefits than they pay into the system, 53% of Americans believe that most people receive less. Most Americans (52%) believe that the share of Americans over 65 who live in poverty has increased compared with 30 years ago; only 18% know that it actually has decreased.

  • Americans believe that the Social Security trust fund is somehow being misused. Asked why the system is in trouble, more people (65%) selected "money in the Social Security trust fund is being spent on programs other than Social Security" than any other reason.

  • A substantial number of Americans are prepared to vote against their representatives in Congress if they cut benefits (47%), raise the retirement age (41%), or increase the Social Security payroll tax (37%).

  • Most Americans expect to retire at or before age 65 (74%), mainly in order to enjoy life (66%), and most (67%) oppose raising the retirement age to 70. However, less than half know Congress has already raised the retirement age.

  • More women than men are worried that they will not have enough money to live on when they retire (75% of women and 59% of men), or to pay large medical bills (76% of women and 60% of men). Women are also more worried than men that they will be a burden to their families (51% of women and 38% of men). On the other hand, men (66%) are more likely than women (47%) to be confident about their own ability to invest Social Security funds in the stock market. However, the factors that make women more vulnerable have not yet crystallized as distinct political issues for them.
  • The NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School Poll is an ongoing project of National Public Radio, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Representatives of the three sponsors worked together to develop the survey questionnaire and to analyze the results, with NPR maintaining sole editorial control over its broadcasts on the surveys.

    The project team includes:

  • From NPR: Marcus D. Rosenbaum, Special Projects Editor.
  • From the Kaiser Family Foundation: Mollyann Brodie, Vice President, Director of Public Opinion and Media Research; and Ana Maria Arumi, Research Associate.
  • From the Kennedy School: Robert J. Blendon, a Harvard University Professor who holds joint appointments in the School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government; and John Benson, Deputy Director for Public Opinion and Health/Social Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health.
    The results of this survey are based on telephone interviews administered by ICR/International Communications Research between March 4 and March 24, 1999, with 1,203 adults 18 years or older nationwide. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For results based on subsets of respondents the margin of error is higher.

  • Tapes and transcripts of the entire Social Security series are available. Click here for more information.