This study explores how workers respond to reports about Social Security’s finances, using an online experiment in which participants are shown identical articles with different headlines. The headline for the control group reports that Social Security has a “long-term financing shortfall,” but does not directly reference the trust fund. The headlines for the three treatment groups highlight the depletion of the trust fund. Two treatment groups saw headlines emphasizing the trust fund’s 2034 reserve depletion date – using increasingly sensationalist language – while a third treatment group saw a headline explaining that ongoing program revenues will cover three-quarters of scheduled benefits after 2034.
The paper found that:
- Treated respondents plan to claim around one year earlier than the control group.
- Treated respondents also shifted their expectations about the level of future benefits away from extreme positions and toward a more realistic assessment.
- In particular, the headline emphasizing ongoing revenues yielded the most accurate beliefs about the level of future benefits.
The policy implications of the findings are:
- Shifting the media narrative around the trust fund to highlight ongoing revenues could improve the public’s understanding of actuarial projections.
- However, workers may still respond to news coverage of the trust fund by claiming earlier.
- If workers follow through with their stated intention to claim earlier, they will lock in lower monthly benefits without increased saving to make up the gap.