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The “America Speaks” Forums and Public Opinion about Social Security

- June 28, 2010

bq. As America Speaks holds town hall meetings and the Deficit Commission contemplates cuts in Social Security benefits, we urge Commission members and others to consider the full range of evidence about public opinion concerning deficits and Social Security. Deliberative forums – including the America Speaks version – are subject to serious pitfalls that make them unreliable as measures of “true” public opinion or as guides to future opinion. Expert analysis of evidence from many sources makes clear that large majorities of Americans strongly support Social Security, oppose benefit cuts (even for the sake of deficit reduction), and prefer to strengthen Social Security finances by raising the payroll tax “cap” or otherwise using progressive taxes. Officials who ignore these views will do so at their peril.

That is from a paper by political scientists Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs. This is the homepage of America Speaks. Nineteen townhall meetings were held yesterday, sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, one of whose goals is drawing attention to what it sees as unsustainable deficits. Here is one report on those townhall meetings, including some input from political scientist Kevin Esterling. who is helping to evaluate the meetings. The outcome of these meetings will be one factor considered by the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission.

Page and Jacobs warn against taking the results of such meetings or deliberative forums as gospel. One problem is that they may not have representative samples. The report linked above suggests that only 100 people turned out in Los Angeles. If those 100 people were not sampled randomly, I think Page and Jacobs’ concern would easily hold in that case.

A second problem is that the value of deliberative forums depends entirely on the quality of the information presented. One specific concern, among others: if the information accentuates a particular problem, respondents may be more likely to see it as important. At the America Speaks forums, the emphasis — unsurprisingly, given the Peterson Foundation’s mission — is the deficit. Page and Jacobs write:

bq. A focus on the “challenge” of deficit reduction (repeatedly emphasized in the America Speaks briefing book), if it temporarily distracts forum participants from other important concerns, could lead them to say they would tolerate cuts in Social Security benefits that most Americans – even the forum participants themselves – would strongly oppose if asked about them in the normal way at home or at work.

Page and Jacobs also argue that a large amount of evidence from public opinion surveys suggests, well, that the public doesn’t necessarily agree with the Peterson Foundation:

bq. The bottom line is that many Americans express concern about budget deficits, but many more see other issues (especially jobs and economic growth) as the top priority. Most Americans do not favor cutting popular programs like Social Security (or education or health care) in order to reduce budget deficits. Support for Social Security is strong and widespread across the population, including among young people. Many more Americans want to increase spending on Social Security than want to decrease it, and that has been true for decades. Virtually any sort of benefit cut is opposed by substantial majorities of Americans.

Page and Jacobs conclude:

bq. The Deficit Commission should take care not be fooled by misleading results from deliberative forums into believing in a phantom public that will support Social Security cuts.

This is certainly a paper that the Bowles-Simpson commission should read, along with the supporting scholarship cited therein. I agree that there is promise deliberative polls but there are also pitfalls. As yet it is unclear whether the America Speaks townhalls will avoid those pitfalls. More generally, any argument in favor of “informed” public opinion must first defend the information provided to the public. The many economists who are far more sanguine about deficits than the Peterson Foundation may not find its briefing materials all that accurate.

Finally, Page and Jacobs’s account of public opinion squares with my own sense, expressed in last week’s post. The public is concerned about deficits, but cares more about economic growth. And of all the means by which the deficit could be reduced, cuts or dramatic reforms to Social Security do not appear popular.

Indeed, participants in yesterday’s meetings took precisely that stance toward Social Security, according to the preliminary results. Participants apparently supported raising the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes — the _very idea_, Page and Jacobs point out, that majorities have supported in numerous surveys. Also popular were taxes on the wealthy and and a carbon tax. With regard to spending cuts, people favored larger cuts to defense spending than other discretionary spending.

Given the way these preliminary findings are written, I cannot tell exactly how many participants favored any of these ideas or anything about the attributes of the participants themselves. The outcome, however, suggests nothing particularly new about public opinion.