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Many Americans Doubt They Will Get Social Security Benefits

Many Americans Doubt They Will Get Social Security Benefits

Story Highlights

  • 51% of nonretirees doubt they will receive Social Security
  • Many retirees are worried their benefits will be cut
  • Two-thirds say Social Security is in crisis or has major problems

PRINCETON, N.J. -- On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Social Security system, 51% of nonretired Americans say they doubt the system will be able to pay them a benefit when they retire. These views have fluctuated in recent decades, but the current level of doubt is similar to what Gallup first measured in 1989, when 47% said they would not be able to receive a benefit.

Nonretirees: Will Social Security Pay You a Benefit?

The latest update on Americans' views of Social Security comes from an aggregate of interviews conducted in two recent Gallup surveys, conducted July 8-12, 2015, and Aug. 5-9, 2015.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on Aug. 14, 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. At the time, Roosevelt was optimistic for the system, saying:

Today, a hope of many years standing is in large part fulfilled. We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.

Americans' initial reaction to Social Security appeared to be positive. One of the first questions Gallup asked about the Social Security system was in July 1938, when 78% of Americans said they approved of "the present social security laws which provide old age pensions and unemployment insurance."

Social Security has clearly become a major feature of the U.S. economic landscape in the eight decades since its inception, but changes in the nation's demographic composition have led the Social Security Administration to project that the system's ability to pay full benefits will end in 2034. Americans' doubtfulness about the long-term viability of Social Security thus would appear to have a basis in reality.

Americans younger than 50 -- most of whom either would be retired or still working in 2034 -- are the most skeptical that Social Security will be around long enough to pay a benefit, as might be expected. Skepticism is much lower among nonretired workers aged 50 and older, perhaps because they anticipate that they would be grandfathered out of any change in the Social Security system designed to help it remain solvent. Among the small group of Americans aged 65 and older who are still working, only 6% doubt they will get Social Security benefits when they retire.

Nonretirees: Will Social Security Pay You a Benefit? By Age

Retirees Worried About Benefit Cuts

While most Americans aged 65 and older who are still working believe they will get their Social Security benefits, 43% of current retirees predict that eventually there will be cuts in their benefits. This figure is down from 56% in 2010, but up from 32% in 2005. These changes may reflect fluctuations in the economy.

Retirees: Will Social Security Continue to Pay Full Benefits?

Most Americans Say Social Security System Has Major Problems or Is in Crisis

In the latest survey, 66% of Americans say Social Security is in a state of crisis (21%) or has major problems (45%). The percentages of Americans holding each of these views has varied over the years, reaching a high of 77% in 2010 and lows in 2002 (67%) and this year (66%). But at least two-thirds of Americans have viewed the system as having major problems or as in a state of crisis since 1998. These negative views likely will continue until elected officials in Washington take action to tackle the system's long-term problems or the projections about the system's financial strength improve as a result of shifts in the economy.

Evaluating the Social Security System

While Americans aged 18 to 29 and those aged 30 to 49 are equally doubtful they will receive Social Security benefits when they retire, these two groups differ in their perceptions of the state of the system. The younger age group, along with those aged 65 and older, is less likely to say the system is in crisis, while those aged 30 to 49, along with those 50 to 64, are more likely to say it is in crisis. A third of those aged 30 to 49 say the Social Security system is in a state of crisis, twice the percentage among those younger than 30 who say the same.

Overall, a majority in all age groups believes the Social Security system is in a state of crisis or has major problems.

Evaluating the Social Security System, by Age

To Ensure Social Security's Future, Americans Prefer Raising Taxes vs. Cutting Benefits

There have been many proposals to change the Social Security system to ensure its long-term solvency. Two primary approaches are to raise taxes or to curb the amount of benefits for future Social Security recipients. Given a choice between these two alternatives, Americans tilt 51% to 37% toward saying that taxes should be raised rather than curbing benefits. These attitudes have not changed materially over the past 10 years.

Best Way to Ensure Social Security's Future

Younger Americans are more evenly divided in their views on these approaches. Americans aged 50 and older -- closer to the point where they will receive benefits -- slightly prefer raising taxes.

Implications

Half of nonretirees today, perhaps aware of government projections, say they don't expect to get their Social Security benefits. This is a major economic red flag because Social Security is by far the most relied-upon source of income for retirees. And as more companies do away with defined pension programs, future retirees will need Social Security as a financial base, even as they work to increase their own savings in the years before they retire.

Additionally, Gallup research shows that Americans see tackling Social Security's problems as one of the most effective ways to improve the overall U.S. economy. So far, however, there are few signs that the president or Congress is currently willing or able to address the issue.

The lack of action on tackling Social Security's problems may reflect the fact that the system's inability to pay full benefits is still decades away, according to the latest projections. It is typically easier to face short-term issues than it is to attempt to fix those that are more long term. The lack of action also reflects the difficulties in making changes to a system that is or will be a major source of income for many Americans -- changes that will almost certainly negatively affect those paying Social Security taxes or those who are receiving benefits.

One way to encourage legislative or executive action on Social Security is for Americans to pressure their elected officials to makes changes, though this way forward is clouded by the lack of a clear or acceptable way to fix the system. Americans have a slight preference for raising taxes over reducing benefits, but previous research shows than neither of these alternatives receives high levels of support from the U.S. public.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted July 8-12 and Aug. 5-9, 2015, with two random sample consisting of a total 2,020 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For results based on the sample of 1,282 nonretirees, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points. For results based on the sample of 738 retirees, the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

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