PRINCETON, NJ -- Six in 10 Americans who have not yet retired believe they will get no Social Security benefits when they retire, more pessimistic than at any time since Gallup began asking this question in 1989. Similarly, retired Americans are now significantly more likely than they were five years ago to believe their existing Social Security benefits will eventually be cut.
Social Security issues have been a relatively low priority this year as the Obama administration and Congress have focused on healthcare, financial reform, energy legislation, jobs, and, in recent months, the Gulf oil spill. Still, with the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Social Security system approaching on Aug. 14, policymakers are likely to refocus soon on the future of the program, increasingly important as the leading edge of the huge baby boom generation begins to reach retirement age.
Nonretirees' confidence in the Social Security system has been relatively low over the last 21 years; 49% said they would receive benefits when Gallup first used the current question wording in 1989, ticking up to a high of 52% in March 2001. The 36% who in the current July 8-11 USA Today/Gallup poll say they expect to receive benefits marks a significant downturn in the last five years.
Gallup research earlier this year found that nonretirees have become slightly more likely since 2007 to project Social Security as a major income source in their retirement, concomitant with a drop in projected reliance on pensions, 401(k) plans, and other investments. Americans thus appear to be in a bind, perceiving an increased need for Social Security while at the same being less sure it will be there when they need it.
Americans aged 18 to 34 are least likely to believe they will receive Social Security benefits when they retire. By contrast, a substantial majority of nonretired Americans 55 and older are confident they will receive benefits, perhaps because much of the discussion about changing Social Security has suggested that older Americans would be exempted from changes in the program.
Gallup has asked retired Americans only twice in recent years if they expect an eventual cut in benefits. The pessimism seen in 2010 marks a flip in attitudes from 2005, when the majority of retirees thought the system would continue without such cuts.
Gallup's update on retirees' actual sources of income earlier this year underscored the potential impact of any cut in benefits; 54% of retirees said Social Security was a major source of income, more than any other source tested.
A quarter of Americans believe the Social Security system is in a state of crisis, the highest in Gallup's 12-year history of asking this question. Most Americans who do not think Social Security is in a state of crisis believe it has major problems.
Americans 65 and older, most of whom are retired and presumably receiving Social Security benefits, are the least likely to say the system is in a state of crisis.
Americans who are not yet retired have become increasingly pessimistic about receiving Social Security benefits when they retire. This comes even as Gallup research shows Americans are more likely to project that Social Security will be a major income source in their retirement. Younger Americans are most pessimistic, which could suggest somewhat paradoxically that if policymakers reduce Social Security benefits in the long run, Americans will not be as angry as might be thought, given their low expectations.
Social Security is presumably more politically potent among currently retired Americans, the majority of whom depend on it as a major income source. Still, more than half of these retirees expect to see a cut in benefits; whether that could actually become reality from a political viewpoint remains to be seen.
Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted July 8-11, 2010, with a random sample of 1,020 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 675 non-retirees, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
For results based on the sample of 345 retirees, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.