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Occasional Paper

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Problem. The U.S. Social Security program is designed to protect the American family structure that existed when the program was introduced in the 1930s. Both family structure and social norms regarding family life have changed substantially in the interim. Major changes in family structure invite proposals to modify Social Security benefits to accommodate contemporary conditions. To remain politically viable, the program must make adjustments to reflect contemporary public opinion regarding family life. We asked to what extent contemporary public opinion is supportive of the current benefit structure and the extent to which public opinion points to possible changes in benefits?

Methods. We explored the feasibility of using factorial survey designs to determine public opinion about Social Security benefits. In this method, respondents are asked to make judgments about vignettes that describe specific situations. Specific vignettes are generated randomly from a vignette structure that includes both a set of dimensions and specific conditions within each dimension. Each respondent is asked to judge a set of vignettes. Through multivariate statistical analysis, the effects of vignette structure on judgments are determined. The project was concerned with the feasibility of applying this method in studying the normative underpinnings of Social Security benefits. Results of two pilot studies are reported. One study was concerned with survivor benefits; the second was concerned with pensions at normal retirement age. Respondents were undergraduate students.

Findings. Overall, the research showed that the factorial survey is a promising method of measuring public opinion regarding Social Security benefits. In the study of survivor benefits, the research found public support, for example, for current policy regarding the presence of 2 minor children in the home for the eligibility of surviving widows or widowers for benefits. However, respondents were less likely to recommend benefits for surviving spouses with undesirable social characteristics. Under current policy, the “worthiness” of survivors is not taken into consideration in determination of benefits. In the study of retirement benefits, the findings show support for the policy of basing pensions heavily on numbers of years of contributions to the system. However, the findings point to possible reform by showing support for providing Social Security credits to full-time unpaid providers of elder care. Further research with more representative samples is needed both to determine whether the current findings can be generalized and to examine other issues concerning Social Security benefits.


Working Paper.



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