Americans Are Open to Reforming Social Security and Medicare

According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, a majority of Americans favor reforming Social Security (61 percent) and Medicare (59 percent) if they are guaranteed to get back what they originally contributed into the system. This reveals important information about how the public conceptualizes entitlements in general and what policymakers must consider in order to reform the system. Moreover, a majority of people would also favor allowing workers to opt out of Social Security (54 percent) and Medicare (56 percent).

These results conflict significantly with the findings of other polls. The following will explain why.

Media poll after poll after poll, as well as left-leaning polls and right-leaning polls, have clearly demonstrated that the public does not want to cut spending for two of the largest federal programs: Social Security and Medicare. The media and political class have understandably come to the conclusion that, “It has become a maxim of U.S. politics that Americans approve of cutting spending in concept but disapprove of cutting specific programs.” The Associated Press explains its AP-GfK poll results by arguing that “most Americans say they don't believe Medicare has to be cut to balance the federal budget, and ditto for Social Security." If one were to digest all of the commentary and polling data, one would likely conclude that not cutting Social Security or Medicare is one of the few things that most Americans agree on.

Moreover, as Fox Business Channel host John Stossel pointed out recently on his show, even among Tea Party supporters, 62 percent believe entitlements are worth the costs, compared to 33 percent of those who said entitlements are not worth it. This suggests hypocrisy among the movement that is most vocal about reducing the size of government.

Recent results from the Reason-Rupe poll dig deeper into American attitudes to reveal why these aforementioned survey questions do not get at how Americans actually conceptualize these programs. In fact, our results show that a majority of Americans are open to entitlement reform.

We started by asking the standard questions asked in the aforementioned polls:

Would you be willing to have your current or future Social Security benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget or ensure the Social Security program remains in place for future retirees?”

Not surprisingly, a similar proportion (57 percent) oppose.

“Would you be willing to have your current or future Medicare benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget or ensure Medicare remains in place for future retirees?"

Again, not surprisingly, a similar proportion (51 percent) oppose.

However, we next asked if respondents would favor reductions in their Social Security and Medicare benefits if they were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money that they have contributed into the system. (Please review Methodology Detail below)

Interestingly our results flipped, with 61 percent and 59 percent, respectively, agreeing.

Social Security

Would you be willing to have your current or future Social Security benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget or ensure the Social Security program remains in place for future retirees?/or if you were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money that you have contributed into the system?

Medicare

Would you be willing to have your current or future Medicare benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget or ensure Medicare remains in place for future retirees?/ or if you were  still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money that you have contributed into the system?

Entitlements have two components. The first is a “savings account” component such that individuals contribute money to Social Security and Medicare from their paychecks. Second, entitlements include a redistributive element whereby money from those with higher lifetime earnings is redistributed to those with lower lifetime earnings. These two components muddled together might help explain why both Republicans and Democrats generally favor these programs. According to Gallup data, support for the programs is virtually identical.

Source: Gallup

However, most poll questions that ask about reducing entitlement spending do not distinguish between these two components of the program. Moreover, it is not obvious that just because a person favors a Social Security savings account that they also favor having their income redistributed. The Reason-Rupe poll’s findings suggest that when these two components are disentangled, Americans care most about getting back the money they contributed to the system. They would even be willing to cut additional benefits they may have received, as long as they get what they earned and contributed. This shows that support for entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare is largely driven by the “contributive” component rather than the redistributive component.

Understanding how the two separate components drive support for Social Security and Medicare makes it clear why Americans have appeared so intransigently averse to reform. It does not make sense to most people why government would need to cut Social Security and Medicare after they have already contributed so much of their own money towards the programs. If they had known that the government would renege on its contract, they could have simply put their money in a risk-free low-return savings account, where at least their principal would remain the same.

These findings also undermine the idea that limited government advocates who are adverse to cutting Social Security and Medicare spending are hypocrites. It is not necessarily the case that these individuals want to cut government spending for everyone but themselves; instead, they simply want to recoup the money that they have already contributed to the system. They just want their money back.

Find full results here.

Methodology Detail:

For Social Security

The survey first asked respondents: “Would you be willing to have your current or future Social Security benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget or ensure the Social Security program remains in place for future retirees?”

Yes 37
No 57
Don't Know 6
Total 100

Then among those who answered “No” we asked: “Would you be more willing to accept reductions in your current or future Social Security benefits if you were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money that you have contributed into the system?”

Yes 43
No 53
Don't Know 4
Total 100

Then we combined those who answered, “Yes” to the first question and those who answered, “Yes” to the second question. This totals the percentage of Americans who would accept reductions in their Social Security benefits as part of a plan to balance the federal budget and/or if they were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money that they have already contributed into the system.

Yes 61
No 30
Don't Know 9
Total 100

For Medicare

The survey first asked respondents: “Would you be willing to have your current or future Medicare benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget or ensure Medicare remains in place for future retirees?” 

Yes 43
No 51
Don't Know 6
Total 100

Then among those who answered “No” we asked: “Would you be more willing to accept a reduction in your current or future Medicare benefits if you were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount you have contributed into the system?”


Yes 32
No 66
Don't Know 2
Total 100

Then we combined those who answered, “Yes” to the first question and those who answered, “Yes” to the second question. This totals the percentage of Americans who would accept reductions in their Medicare benefits as part of a plan to balance the federal budget and/or if they were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money that they have already contributed into the system.

Yes 59
No 33
Don't Know 8
Total 100

Click here for full survey results.

Survey Methods

The Reason-Rupe Q3 2011 poll collected a nationally representative sample of 1200 respondents, aged 18 and older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia using live telephone interviews from August 9th-18th 2011. The margin of sampling error for this poll is ± 3 percent. The margin of error for the GOP presidential race numbers is ± 4.79%. Interviews were conducted with respondents using both landline (790) and mobile phones (410). Landline respondents were randomly selected within households based on the adult who had the most recent birthday. Sample was weighted by gender, age, ethnicity, and Census region, based on the most recent US Census data. The sampling frame included landline and mobile phone numbers generated using Random Digit Dialing (RDD) methods and randomly selected numbers from a directory-listed sample. Click here for full methodological details. NSON Opinion Strategy conducted the poll’s fieldwork. View full methodology.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    The problem, of course, is the nature of the scam itself. People who have retired or are approaching retirement have paid to support people who retired before. They naturally expect to get a return on their "investment." It's insidious, but it's hard to blame people for not wanting to get completely screwed.

    Even so, there's no reason they couldn't phase out the programs, allowing those of us who are younger to opt out, and simply paying those already retired or about to retire out of general revenues.

  • Uncle FICA||

    They could let the younger opt out but continue to pay, say 2%, for being unmutual.

  • ||

    Yes, an unmutuality penalty would be in order.

  • Joe M||

    I would actually be willing to forgo getting anything back on my "investment" in Social Security if it meant I would not have to pay any more payroll taxes. I'm making good progress with my 401k and Roth IRA.

  • Federal Dog||

    People need to process the fact that the government scammed them, took their money, squandered it on itself, and is now lying to escape responsibility.

    Any confusion in this regard reflects nothing but pathetic "marks" scratching their heads and wondering what just happened to leave them bankrupt.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    "get back what they originally contributed into the system"

    Original gross amount adjusted for inflation+interest+lost opportunity+inconvenience+restitution for stealing from me

    Those fuckers owe me like a million dollars.

  • ||

    Don't forget punitive damages for perpetuating a fraud. Call it one billion even.

  • ||

    Be one hell of a class astion suit. Of course we'd only be paying ourselves so there would be no difference in outcome.

  • Gojira (formerly Jim)||

    Maybe it's the eternal pessimist in me, but does anyone else think it's more than gosh! coincidence that polls conducted by a libertarian-leaning organization consistently find that Americans favor libertarian policy prescriptions?

    I mean, I really would not pay attention to, "GM Poll Shows Most Americans Will Drive a Chevy", or "McDonalds Poll Finds People Love, Want More Fries".

    It's like all these self-reported "independents" these polls always tout. Guess what? All those "independents" are going to pull the lever for Team Red or Blue, no matter what they say in a poll. It astonishes me that people still attach some importance to that, after things like, "60% of Americans Identify as Independent; Independent Candidates Receive Less Than 5% of the Vote", which is a fairly common occurance.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    I don't really see a lot to be optimistic about from these polls, actually. I pretty much just want to acquire more arms.

  • ||

    I don't think it's any surprise to see a libertarian streak in Americans. We've always had that. Unfortunately, it stopped being the core of our being and become simply a superficial characteristic some time ago.

  • Gojira||

    That's basically what I'm saying. What people say on a poll and how they actually vote when the time comes are so far divorced from one another as to make any comparison pointless.

  • ||

    Are you Gojira who was formerly Jim, or are you some new Gojira?

  • Gojira||

    Formerly Jim. Last week I put the (formerly Jim) on every post.

    This week, I'm using it on my initial posts, then leaving it off the replies.

    I'm weaning you all off of the old and onto the new.

  • ||

    It's so confusing.

  • Gojira||

    What's worse is, the two other Jims who were posting that finally drove me to this desperation seem to have vanished as soon as I started changing my handle. Oh well, he who looks back is lost, so full steam ahead with the handle-change.

  • robc||

    I may start posting as Gojira since the other Jims left.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Could there be any question? With that menacing grimace and terrible sound, writing that high tension blog reply down...

  • R||

    Oh, no, there goes Balko, go go Gojira.

  • ||

    GOJIRA!

    Oh, it's only Jim. Never mind.

  • Libertarianism||

    "a superficial characteristic"

    Ouch.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    In this case, your pessimism is well justified. I would like to think that because libertarianism has fairly consistent principles that a poll conducted by a Libertarian group would not lean toward bias. But alas, libertarian principles are ideas that live in individual minds, and polls are constructs created by humans to be consumed by humans. Therefore, polls are always subject to bias. But as an H&R reader (this ain't no HuffPo, yo!), I'm sure your critical thinking skills are finely tuned. So yeah, skepticism, grain of salt, be dubious, be suspect, challenge assumptions, and caveat emptor my friend.

  • Redland Jack||

    The methodology seems a little dicey. Namely:
    'Then among those who answered “No” we asked: “Would you be more willing to accept a reduction...'

    If you answer 'yes' to this, they combine you with those who answered 'yes' on the first question (willingness to accept benefit cuts unconditionally).

    However, being 'more willing' to accept cuts if you get your money back doesn't equate to 'being willing to accept' cuts if you get your money back...

    At least, I wouldn't think so.

    Plus, the methodology of taking all the 'YES' from one question, and then giving the 'NOs' a chance to change their mind, while not giving the 'YES' a chance...

  • ||

    Every time I hear the word savings in association with social security, I can't help but think of Daniel Day Lewis' speech in There Will Be Blood.

    Social security savings? It's gone, all gone, it's been had!

  • ||

    Americans Are Open to Reforming Social Security and Medicare

    Why is it when i say things like this i get blamed for feeding the trolls?

    Anti-Anti-troll brigade unite!!!

  • CE||

    Entitlements have two components. The first is a “savings account” component such that individuals contribute money to Social Security and Medicare from their paychecks. Second, entitlements include a redistributive element whereby money from those with higher lifetime earnings is redistributed to those with lower lifetime earnings.

    Actually, there's only one element, and it's entirely redistributive. Current workers are taxed, and their money goes into the federal government's general fund, to be spent as Congress decides. Some of it traditionally goes to retired workers who were "promised" certain benefits in the past.

    Whether or not current workers receive future "promised" benefits, and when, and how much, is entirely up to Congress.

  • adam||

    China also has a say

  • BigT||

    "According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, a majority of Americans favor reforming Social Security (61 percent) and Medicare (59 percent) if they are guaranteed to get back what they originally contributed into the system"

    Clearly, We need to spend more time in high school on compound interest.

  • ||

    Give me back, right now, what I've put in. I'll take real dollars and put it into a Roth IRA. Just let me opt out of paying for other people's retirement. I shouldn't be forced to pay for other (richer) people's retirement before I've funded my own.

  • ranting ranter||

    I like how they totaled all numbers up for us. Good to know that the people answering the poll, in total, amounted to 100% of the people answering the poll.

  • robc||

    Guess what the first thing I do when I dont see totals is?

    Thats right...I add them up.

  • ||

    The first question is bogus. The deficet should not be reduced through a reduction in scocial security benefits because SS is not supposed tobe part of the regular budget. So no I do not want to see benefits reduced to pay for the budget.

    But yes to reform SS alone I would be open to a reduction in benefits.

  • Carly EngageAmerica||

    In 2011, Social Security tax income will fall short of payment obligations and the program will add $151 billion to the current federal deficit. From 1984-2009 inclusive, Social Security did indeed mitigate federal deficits by running annual surpluses of taxes over expenditures. But that positive balance turned into a deficit in 2010 when the onset of Baby Boomer retirements coincided with a recession that depressed payroll tax revenues. Social Security is thus now exacerbating the federal budget deficit and will do so even more in the years ahead.

    The argument that Social Security "can’t add to the deficit" is founded on the idea that the program is self-financing, so it can’t spend on benefits beyond what it previously generated in revenues. This might be true if it were not for certain unavoidable realities. First, not all of the money in Social Security’s Trust Funds represents past surplus taxes paid by anyone. Some of the debt was simply issued without any incoming taxes behind it. This year, for example, the Social Security payroll tax was cut while—to make up for the lost revenue—the same law issued $105 billion in further Treasury Bonds to its Trust Funds.

    The vast majority of all assets in the Trust Funds represent interest credits. These interest payments would only reflect a positive long-term budget impact if past surplus Social Security taxes had been saved. Most academic analysis has instead concluded the opposite—that past surpluses stimulated additional federal consumption—instead of being used to reduce federal debt service costs ((http://eng.am/pF7jQ9).

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement