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The Popularity of Social Security Opt-Out

Over the past several months I've been uncomfortable with something. Because there are so many good reasons to opt out of Social Security, it ought to be a popular idea — right? Imagine my frustration when everyone I talk to tells me that of course it's a good idea but <sigh> it's politically impossible, it wouldn't be popular, and people have already tried and failed to make it happen.

But where's the data? That's what I've been missing. Show me a poll that says opt-out is unpopular! No one could.

This weekend I got a hint that someone has polled on the question recently. Monday, I got the details — thank you, Lea G. It turns out that than the AARP included a question about opt-out in their Social Security 70th Anniversary Survey. You can download the PDF report from their website.

It's so good to have data! The questionnaire they used plus the summary figures they obtained are available at the end of their document. The relevant question is #11, asked of 929 non-retired people in July 2005:

Right now most people are required to be members of the Social Security System. Some people feel that it would be better for them to get out of the Social Security System, if they could, and use the money they pay in taxes for other purposes. Other people feel that — whether or not it might be better for them personally to get out of the Social Security System — they should stay in and support it. Which of these views comes closest to your own? If you could get out of Social Security, would you do it? Or do you think you should stay in and support the system?

Would get out22%
Should stay in75%
Don't know2%
Refused to answer<0.05%

Notice that this question asks whether they personally would opt out, not whether they would support giving people the opportunity to opt out even if they didn't personally want to opt out. Also notice how the phrasing of the question was slightly biased to create the feeling of an obligation to "stay in and support" Social Security. For both reasons, the percentage of people who would support an individual opt-out is definitely higher than the 22% reported. Look at the age distribution of survey-takers (question S8):

Age RangePercentage

Of the 1200 people surveyed, only the 929 non-retired people were asked about opt-out. Assuming none of the under-30 group were retired, they represented about 23% of the people who answered the opt-out question. I think it's encouraging that the survey reported such a high percentage of people would opt out, even though less than a quarter of the respondents were under 30!

A weakness of this survey — for my purposes, anyway — is that it didn't describe what would happen to past Social Security contributions if you opted out, and was not clear about whether the decision would be irrevocable. People had to answer the question based on what they thought was most likely … if they thought about it in detail at all.

Regardless, I am surprised and encouraged by these numbers. Social Security opt-out looks quite popular even among people who haven't read my essay. :)

Now that I have a sense for how many people would actually opt out if given the choice, I'll try to answer the question I was asked about the fiscal impact of opt out. (But I'm booked Tuesday night. It'll have to wait for Wednesday.)

Tiny Island