This essay first appeared in The Washington Post on Oct. 27, 2016
In the third presidential debate, moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked the candidates whether they might pursue a "grand bargain" on Social Security -- one that would include both revenue increases and benefit cuts. The Social Security Administration says that, with baby boomers retiring, the program is headed for a shortfall. Unless changes are made, by the year 2033, benefits would need to be cut by about a quarter.
Donald Trump suggested that his proposed tax cuts would produce so much growth that there would be plenty of funding.Then he quickly changed the subject. Hillary Clinton signaled a willingness to raise the cap on income subject to the payroll tax that funds Social Security, thereby bringing in more funds, but pledged not to cut benefits and also quickly pivoted.
Neither appeared comfortable dealing with the problem. Presumably, they share the widespread assumption that for the American people, Social Security is a "third rail" -- not subject to rational discourse.
But is it really a third rail -- or are Americans amenable to changes?
Results from a new survey of more than 8,600 registered voters across the country, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, suggest that a large majority of Americans are ready for a plan that would deal with most, if not all, of the Social Security shortfall, if the problem and the possible remedies are clearly presented to them.
This survey, called a Citizen Cabinet survey, was unique. Respondents went through a "policymaking simulation" in which they were briefed on the Social Security program and told about the looming shortfall and its causes -- the declining number of workers per retiree and the fact that Americans are living longer.
They were then presented a series of options for dealing with the expected shortfall, together with strongly stated arguments for and against each option and information about the effect of each one on the shortfall. The content was vetted, in advance, for accuracy and balance by Republican and Democratic congressional staffers as well as experts at the liberal National Academy for Social Insurance and the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The pro and con arguments were full-throated. Besides hearing about the negative consequences of possible benefit cuts, they heard such arguments as that increasing the retirement age would be hard on people who do manual labor and that raising taxes could hurt the economy. Indeed, in almost every case, majorities found both the pro and con arguments convincing.
But in the end, large majorities from both parties agreed on four steps that would resolve at least two-thirds of the projected shortfall:
1. Tax more income.
Raising the cap on income subject to the payroll from the current $118,000 to $215,000 was the most popular option. Fully 88 percent of respondents supported this nationally, including 84 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats.
2. Increase the Social Security tax.
But they were not only looking to raise taxes on the wealthy. Seventy-six percent also approved of raising the payroll tax from 6.2 to 6.6 percent (72 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats). That step would affect even low-income workers more dramatically than those with higher incomes.
3. Reduce benefits to top earners.
Reducing benefits for the top 25 percent of lifetime earners received 76 percent support, including 72 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats.
4. Increase the retirement age.
Here, too, they favored what would be, in effect, a cut in benefits that would affect all future retirees: gradually raising the retirement age to 68 years old. This step elicited 79 percent approval (81 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Democrats).
These four steps would eliminate 66 percent of the shortfall.
In addition, 59 percent went further, saying they would support eliminating the cap on taxable earnings entirely. Together with these other steps, the removal of the cap would completely resolve the shortfall. Even 54 percent of Republicans said they were willing to take this dramatic step, as did 64 percent of Democrats.
The large national sample included substantial samples for eight states and found essentially the same results in California, Florida, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. The survey was conducted by the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation and fielded with Nielsen-Scarborough's probability-based online panel. The findings are featured in a new video produced by Voice Of the People, which sponsored the survey.
A public version of the policymaking simulation is posted at vop.org for anyone to try. Citizens are encouraged to go through the simulation and then share their recommendations with their congressional representatives at: http://research.cfrinc.net/vop16159pub/.
These results suggest that the new president -- whomever he or she is -- and leaders in Congress need not continue to avoid Social Security.
No doubt there would be challenges from Republican members committed to never raise taxes and Democratic members committed to never cut benefits. Interest groups would take strong positions against one change or another, would seek to organize and mobilize people based on ideology and class and cohort interests, and would fill the airwaves with their messages.
Nevertheless, most Americans are very capable of thinking in terms of how to solve big problems in a balanced and fair manner, not just what is in their personal interest.
Consider that in the survey, people with incomes over $100,000, who would be singularly affected by raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax, favored doing so by the same large majorities as for those who would not be affected. Younger people, who would be affected by an increase in the retirement age, supported doing so by the same margins as those who would not be affected because they would be grandfathered in. Those with low incomes, who are more likely to engage in manual labor, were no less likely to support increases in the retirement age, though this could be more onerous for them.
Clearly, American voters are concerned about the future of Social Security and are ready to take strong and balanced steps to solve the problem. If leaders are willing to explain the issue and the options, they are likely to find a large number of American voters ready to follow.
Steven Kull is director of the Program for Public Consultation at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, and president of Voice of the People, an organization that seeks to give the American people a greater voice in government.