ON this big day in American taxation, when a great many people are grumbling about how much they have to pay, it is instructive to review public opinion on Social Security taxes and the program they sustain.
Social Security is the most popular ``big tax'' among those which take large sums from a large majority of the populace. This is so more than a half-century into the program, with Social Security taking an ever-larger bite. At the same time, we can now see currents in public opinion that may signal the beginnings of the first big split over Social Security.
For a decade or more now, political analysts have been predicting generational and income-group conflict on Social Security. The reasons are obvious. A middle-income worker in his or her 20s can look forward to very high Social Security taxation over several decades before receiving benefits. This person would seem then to be in a natural conflict of interest with another worker in his or her early 60s who is about done paying-in and about ready to begin taking-out.
Up to now, though, such group differences have been strikingly limited. When in June 1990 Yankelovich Clancy Shulman asked respondents whether they favored cutting Social Security taxes, 65 percent with incomes under $10,000 and 59 percent earning $50,000 or more opposed such a reduction. Seventy percent aged 18-29 and 67 percent in the 50-64 cohort also rejected a Social Security tax reduction. The prevailing attitude has been that Social Security is a good program and that we have to pay the taxes needed to sustain it.
Other questions pick up similarly high backing across social group lines. In 1993 the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago asked its standard battery of spending questions: Are we spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on various programs? NORC found large group differences in many instances, but not on Social Security. Only 8 percent of persons 18-29 years of age, compared with 5 percent of those 60 years and older, said we were spending too much on it. Just 10 percent of college graduates and 5 percent of those with less than a high school education, 10 percent of men and 5 percent of women, 8 percent of whites and 4 percent of blacks, 8 percent of Republicans and 5 percent of Democrats called Social Security spending excessive.
Where there were differences on this spending issue, they often ran opposite what one might expect. For example, young people and their elders differed on whether current social security spending should be considered ``too little'' or ``about right'' though very few in any age group said ``too much.'' But it was the very young adults who were the more inclined to call Social Security spending too low: In the 1993 NORC survey, 48 percent of the 18-29 year-olds said this, while 36 percent of the group said spending is about right. Among those 60 years and older, though, those who are the immediate beneficiaries of Social Security or about to become beneficiaries, just 34 percent thought present spending was too low, while 52 percent said it was at the right level.
Rather than generational warfare, such responses suggest that it is information that is driving the answers given. People in their 60s and older are more likely to have a concrete sense of just what is being expended for Social Security benefits than are people in their 20s, who are so far away from receiving such benefits as to give them little reason to examine the amounts closely.
This having been said, I find in recent data more suggestions of an emergent split involving economic and age groups than I have seen at any point in the past. A few examples:
In February 1993, the Gallup Organization asked whether ``you would like to contribute half of your Social Security taxes to an `IRA' (Individual Retirement Account) now, and take a smaller Social Security benefit when you retire.''
In the whole adult population, 55 percent said they would, 44 percent that they would not. The differences by age were quite sharp although not overwhelming. On socioeconomic status variables, the split was very pronounced. Thus, 73 percent of persons with less than a 12th-grade education opposed the IRA option, compared to 52 percent of high school graduates and 29 percent of college grads.
In November 1992 Gallup asked about a matter that, if implemented, would rip the entire fabric of Social Security - whether participation in it should be made voluntary. This issue really is not on the political agenda so far as the general public is concerned, and a great many people probably have not thought through the question's implications. Looking at group responses could be misleading. Still, it may be suggestive of growing concern about the costs of participation that 46 percent said that Social Security should be made voluntary, and that 47 percent of the college graduates favored a voluntary program.
Social Security remains very popular. It now seems, though, that the days are past when ``consensus'' is a sufficient description of American attitudes toward it. Social Security is on the verge of becoming a ``normal'' issue, one which various groups in the populace view differently, reflecting the differing interests they bring to it.