Finding a Social Security Solution We Can All Agree On

In October, the National Academy for Social Insurance published a study on Americans' preferred solution to making Social Security solvent. CRFB responded with a post questioning the study's option choices and description of some of the options. NASI's Board Chair Bill Arnone defended their methodology in a subsequent post. The following response was posted by CRFB President Maya MacGuineas.

The National Academy of Social Insurance has done a real service by conducting “trade-off analyses” to better understand how Americans would fix a Social Security program quickly headed toward insolvency. By forcing Americans to fully understand and weigh various options, rather than just asking about them in isolation, a trade-off analysis has the power to better simulate the tough choices that lawmakers will face in adjusting the program.

As we wrote in our blog, however, NASI’s trade-off analysis falls short in some areas that cause us to question the results. As we explained, the survey omits the single largest and most prominent set of benefit options – gradual adjustments to the initial benefit – which have been in nearly all plans that restore solvency by slowing benefit growth or with a balance of revenue and spending options. On top of that, many of the choices are framed in fashions that are not parallel with each other, likely leading participants to favor certain choices over others.

While we certainly appreciate NASI Board Chair Bill Arnone’s explanation of why NASI made some of the choices they did, the explanation unfortunately does not justify their decisions. For example, we know of no plan that would means-test benefits as NASI describes by literally requiring people to “provide proof of their eligibility" by proving their annual income (the Heritage plan NASI cites – one of the few to means-test based on current earnings at all – instead phases out benefit for the highest earning seniors and appears to do so based on already-reported taxable income). Whether Americans want to turn Social Security into a welfare program is not a good proxy for whether they support the much more often discussed approach to gradually slow the growth of initial benefits for those with higher lifetime earnings.

Separate from that issue, any evenhanded survey should offer all proposals’ best arguments – or at least provide parallel descriptions for similar proposals – rather than omitting views that are not held by the survey authors; this is especially true when those views are widely held within the expert community as is the case with Chained CPI. Finally, fair descriptions of different options must describe their impact on benefits and taxes in comparable ways.

While we do have some concerns about the survey's specifics, it would be a huge shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater. NASI plays an incredibly important role in bringing together experts, ideas, and solutions on issues related to social insurance. Bringing the public into this discussion through surveys and trade-off analyses is an incredibly important endeavor.

To that end, we propose that NASI and CRFB work together to develop an improved survey and trade-off analysis next year. We could work together to develop the questions, descriptions, and policy options that could help us best understand both what the American people prefer and what – in the right circumstances – they are willing to accept.

We are both non-partisan, respected groups – NASI more focused on social insurance and CRFB on fiscal issues – so questions and descriptions vetted by both organizations could remove any perception of bias.

The results would be incredibly informative to Democrats and Republicans interested in making sure the Social Security program is able to fully pay benefits well into the future.  With the SSDI trust fund less than two years from running out of reserves, and the Old Age trust fund facing insolvency within two decades, time is running out to make thoughtful reforms.