Media Coverage of Trust Fund Influences Claim and Benefit Expectations

Sep 13, 2021

Does the news about the Social Security trust fund have an impact on when workers plan to claim their benefits and how much they expect those benefits to be? A recent survey says yes. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College showed study participants 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. The first headline read, “The Social Security Trust Fund Will Deplete its Reserves in 2034.” The second mirrors recent media coverage: “Social Security Fund Headed toward Insolvency in 2034, Trustees Find.” And the third emphasizes ongoing program revenue alongside the trust fund: “Revenues Projected to Cover Only 75 Percent of Scheduled Social Security Benefits After 2034.”

Participants were then asked about their expectations for the future: their planned claiming age, the level of benefits they expect to receive from Social Security, and how much they plan to save in their 401(k) or IRA. The analysis compares the expectations of the treatment groups to the control group.

The results show that headlines about the trust fund shift claiming ages and expected benefit levels, but not future savings goals. Respondents in all three treatment groups stated that they plan to claim around one year earlier than the control group. They also shifted their beliefs about future benefit levels away from extreme positions and toward more realistic expectations; in particular, respondents who read the headline about ongoing revenue were more likely to expect around three-quarters of scheduled benefits.

In summary, headlines about the trust fund induce earlier claiming—regardless of tone—but adding information about revenues makes readers more realistic about the level of future benefits. In no case do workers plan to increase their saving to offset future benefit cuts.

See the full paper here.


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