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Back to the Future: Young Voters Support Social Security, But Fear for its Preservation

This blog is also posted on the Social Security Media Watch Project.

By Leah Josephson

As an undergraduate student readying myself to enter the workforce in a struggling economy, I was interested in the panel discussion, “Engaging Younger Voters on Social Security,” hosted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) on Wednesday, July 20. With Social Security possibly on the table as a target for budget cuts, I wondered if I would be protected by the program in retirement, more than 45 years from now.

Panelists described how to best explain the importance of retirement security programs to young people and explored polling results regarding young peoples’ feelings about the Social Security program.

Showing Young Voters a Future for the Program

EPI Research Assistant Kathryn Edwards, who co-authored “A Young Person’s Guide to Social Security,” spoke to the struggles young people face in understanding the current nature and the future Social Security. Younger generations sometimes see the program as something they won’t need—or that simply won’t be available by the time they reach retirement age.

Edwards has seen success in framing Social Security as a type of insurance. Just like car owners and homeowners buy insurance, Social Security offers protection in the event someone is unable to work, and the investment remains as workers shift between jobs. Social Security also serves as risk insurance for individuals unable to work due to disabilities and for the children of deceased parents. “Because you are an actor in this economy, you are at risk,” said Edwards. “The answer to risk is to protect yourself against it.”

Edwards also addressed the widespread myth that Social Security is “running out.” Social Security currently costs around four percent of GDP and will rise to a little less than six percent by 2035. This increase in cost is not a crippling adjustment, and similar increases have been absorbed by the economy in the past. Defense spending increased by 1.5 percent from 2001–2007, a much shorter period of time, and the economy was able to support it.

“This isn’t a problem with the program, it’s a problem with the politics,” said Edwards. She said the framing of Social Security as a problem is a political strategy rather than an economic reality.

Younger Generations Don’t Need Convincing on the Importance of Social Security

There was also some myth busting on young people’s understanding of Social Security. An accurate portrayal of my generation’s feelings about the program: we care. Most young people understand the importance of government retirement insurance, but fear for its preservation.

Celinda Lake, a political strategist, advisor, and pollster, presented the results of her study of around 5,000 voters’ attitudes toward the Social Security program. Nation- and state-wide phone surveys were conducted in May 2010 and March 2011. Focus groups and dial tests were held in March and April 2010.

While many advocates believe young people have little interest in retirement insurance, Lake’s research showed that younger voters have surprisingly strong, positive feelings about Social Security. In fact, the younger the voter, the more likely she or he is to oppose raising the retirement age.

Support for Lifting the Cap on Payroll Tax Strong Among Young Voters

Voters under 30 also strongly supported eliminating the cap on payroll tax  that exempts Americans making more than $106,800 (just six percent of the population) from paying Social Security taxes on wages above that threshold. Seventy-two percent of younger voters surveyed said they would support a candidate who supported lifting the cap.

Younger voters see Social Security as a promise, a government covenant made to all generations to provide a basic and reliable retirement. Before Social Security was passed in 1934, many lower income Americans had to either work until they died or live their final years in poverty. Social Security instilled in Americans a basic belief in older individuals’ right to a modest guaranteed income after lifelong employment.

Lake speculated that stability is an important value to young voters because of difficult experiences navigating the job market during and after the recession. She was confident policymakers could sell younger voters on the importance of Social Security because her survey findings showed they already strongly value the program. “We’re not convincing young people,” she said. “We’re tapping into existing attitudes. We’re mobilizing them.”

Cuts made to Social Security now will not directly affect Americans who already receive benefits or those who will receive benefits in the next few decades – they’ll affect the younger generations. Edwards summed up the program’s relevance to younger voters: “If you’re a young person, Social Security is yours to lose.”

Leah Josephson is the Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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