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Messaging Social Security Takes Diverse Strategies

Kathryn Anne Edwards, Economic Policy Institute, on the panel at the NASI Conference. David Baldridge, International Association of Indigenous Aging, in background. Photo by Sam Kittner/kittner.com for NASI.

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

Last week was the 24th annual conference of the National Academy of Social Insurance held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. At a roundtable session on Friday, January 27, panelists discussed how to craft effective messaging on Social Security to reach different audiences—including young people, as well as those from diverse ethnic and racial groups.

Covering all American workers and their families, Social Security has an enormous reach. This accounts for the both the program’s success, as well as the difficulty in communicating its importance to all those who will likely receive Social Security benefits at some point.

Panelist Wilhelmina A. Leigh, Senior Research Associate on Economic Security with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, served as a member of the Commission to Modernize Social Security. She emphasized the importance of communicating that the program could be improved both to restore solvency and enhance benefits, which was a goal of the commission. The challenge of communicating Social Security is reaching those who have not yet had to apply for benefits. “People who have gotten the message about how the system works have generally had to use the system,” said Leigh.

Moderator, Thomas Bethell, Visiting Scholar with the National Academy of Social Insurance, reminded the audience that Social Security could be equated to a house that needs maintenance: “If your house needs maintenance, are you going to tear it down to fix it?”

David Baldridge spoke on the panel as Executive Director of the International Association of Indigenous Aging (IA 2), an organization that received NASI grant funding in order to conduct outreach and education on Social Security among Indian elders in New Mexico. Baldridge explained that it was imperative to get support from Indian elders in order to engage tribes living in more isolated communities and reservations.  Listening to and incorporating recommendations on Social Security from members of the community was also essential.

The effort proved to be a success, eventually leading to the buy-in of more than 500 tribes for the report that included formal recommendations based on the tribes’ own input. The process is intended to serve as a national model for engaging indigenous tribes across the country on these issues.

Valerie Rawlston Wilson, Vice President of Research and Economist with the National Urban League Policy Institute, faces several main challenges in communicating the importance of Social Security to the African American community: reaching a diverse audience, capturing people’s attention, simplifying a complex issue, and obtaining buy-in from local affiliate leaders.

To reach a younger audience, Wilson relies on social media and the Urban League’s “I am Empowered” campaign. The website for the campaign includes an easy-to-follow quiz to test users knowledge of the Social Security program. Leigh added that scenario-based exercises can help young adults think about ways that Social Security benefits could actually help them down the road, if they lost a job or a spouse.

Kathryn Anne Edwards, Research Assistant with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), also aims to reach young people with the message of preserving Social Security. In this case, she is reaching out to her peers. Edwards, who is in her twenties, wrote a textbook on Social Security directed to her own generation that defines Social Security, outlines its benefits, and offers a perspective in support of the program.

Edwards found young people might not understand why they need to support Social Security. They may feel helpless believing simply that the program will be gone by the time they retire. Her response is that it is a matter of responsibility and young people are not as forsaken as they perceive themselves to be. “If you are under 30, Social Security is yours to lose,” said Edwards.

As one of NASI’s grantees charged with conducting outreach and education on Social Security, IWPR is working to communicate the importance of the program. Our research has shown that reliance on the program increased among older Americans in the past decade and that it is widely supported across lines of gender, race/ethnicity, and political affiliation. IWPR continues to work closely with the National Council of Women’s Organizations to conduct outreach on the importance of Social Security to Americans, particularly vulnerable populations such as low-income seniors.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

IWPR Releases New Findings on Increasing Importance of Social Security

A January 27 event at the National Press Club brought together experts on Social Security and the economy to discuss findings.

by Caroline Dobuzinskis

Social Security is vital to women and minorities. For many, this is not new knowledge. More surprising are findings from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research showing that rates of reliance on Social Security increased dramatically between 1999 and 2009—particularly among men. The findings were released on January 27 in our latest report, Social Security Especially Vital to Women and People of Color, Men Increasingly Reliant, authored by Heidi Hartmann, Jeff Hayes, and Robert Drago.

At the National Press Club, IWPR President Heidi Hartmann presented IWPR’s new findings at a release event that coincided with the kick-off of the annual conference of the prestigious National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI).

The report finds that, between 1999 and 2009, the number of men aged 65 and older relying on Social Security for at least 80 percent of their incomes increased by 48 percent (from 3.8 million to 5.7 million) to equal more than a third of all men aged 65 and older in 2009. The increase for comparable women was 26 percent (from 8.2 million to 10.3 million) to equal half of older women in 2009.

Dr. Hartmann, lead author of the report, was joined by other experts who shared their views on the report’s findings—Dr. Gary Burtless, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, Brookings Institution; Virginia Reno, Vice President for Income Security,  NASI; and, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, President and CEO, Global Policy Solutions.  Dr. Robert Drago, IWPR’s Director of Research, moderated the panel.  All the presentations are available to be viewed on YouTube.

The main theme of the discussion was the need for preserving the Social Security system, because of the impact that cuts would have for many who depend on it. Speakers pointed to how, particularly in the aftermath of the recent recession, Social Security is increasingly essential to keep many out of poverty. “For the majority of the aging population, the Social Security safety net is getting the job done,” said Virginia Reno.

“This [report] is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of how many older people, and particularly different population groups among the aged, depend on Social Security,” said Dr. Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institute. “It’s the most important source for the great majority of the elderly. Cutting it would have serious repercussions for the most vulnerable of the aged.”

IWPR’s report shows that, in 2009, Social Security helped more than 14 million Americans aged 65 and older stay above the poverty line. Without access to Social Security, 58 percent of women and 48 percent of men above the age of 75 would be living below the poverty line.

Dr. Burtless pointed to the fact that the social safety net continues to “get the job done” for the majority of the nation’s aged population, including those in the lowest income distribution brackets. As a result, many have been spared from the worst impact of the recent recession.

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore of Global Policy Solutions put forth the significance of the findings to communities of color, “a population that was already suffering from disparities in assets and income prior to the financial crisis.” She pointed to the asset gap outlined in the report, with white women in particular having more income from assets than black or Hispanic women.

IWPR’s research found that, among women aged 62-64, white women report an average of $3,471 in income from assets compared with $1,738 for black women and $1,417 for Hispanic women. Among women aged 75 and older, white women report $3,278 in income from assets, compared with $715 for black women and $549 for Hispanic women, on average.

“I would argue that the fact that we’ve seen increases in reliance in Social Security over the past 10 years is going to be a harbinger of the future as well,” said Dr. Rockeymoore. “Overall we know that this is going to have significance—severe significance—for populations of color in the future, not only today’s retirees.”

Additional findings from the report support the continued need for Social Security among minorities and women, who benefit disproportionately from Social Security because the program is designed to pay proportionally higher benefits to lower earning workers. Women also benefit from the program’s family benefits.

The study is based on IWPR analysis of data from the 1978 to 2010 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplements collected jointly by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Please read the report in full on IWPR’s website.

To follow the conversation on Social Security, follow IWPR on Twitter. Join the conversation by using the hashtags #Social Security and #womenspolicy.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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