Americans Discuss Social Security

The Pew Charitable Trust
National Policy
Across America
January 1998, April 1999

A “Middle Ground” on Social Security

Americans Discuss Social Security (ADSS) project directly engaged Americans of all walks of life in a national dialogue about Social Security reform and urged Congress to support legislation that reflected citizen preferences.  The Pew Charitable Trust funded this non-partisan process to break new ground on engaging citizens in a new manner to influence national policy.  ADSS was the inaugural project for AmericaSpeaks to demonstrate how to take democracy to scale using the nascent 21st Century Town Meeting® model.

Over 15 months, the project engaged nearly 50,000 Americans in 50 states in direct discussions on Social Security reform and more than 12 million through the project’s media and public education efforts. Participants reflected the rich regional, ethnic and generational diversity of the country. Special efforts were made to engage seniors and young adults – the populations most significantly impacted by the reform options.

ADSS directly engaged formal and informal decision makers at every stage of the process. President Clinton and 120 members of Congress actively participated in town meetings and teleconferences, giving them a unique opportunity to discuss the issue with a diverse group of constituents.

ADSS had an immediate and direct impact on the Social Security debate. The project demonstrated the intense public interest in the future of Social Security reform and showed that Americans had more of a “middle ground” approach than special interests or lawmakers had believed. For example, contrary to insiders’ expectations, participants overwhelmingly supported raising the cap on payroll taxes. These results were considered credible because of ADSS’ neutral stance on the issue, the diversity of participants, and lawmakers’ direct involvement in the process. Eventually, each of the major reform proposals being considered by policymakers included raising the cap on payroll taxes.

ADSS demonstrated the value of citizen voices and the positive impact citizen deliberation can have on public decision making. Although Congress was eventually not able to agree upon a reform package, the outcomes of the deliberation altered the perception of what the public would and would not accept. Furthermore, the ADSS methods revealed that citizen deliberation efforts can re-connect decision makers and constituents, break the deadlock created by special interests, and inform thousands of citizens of important public matters.


ADSS demonstrated the value of citizen voices and the positive impact citizen deliberation can have on public decision making.