How To Slow Or Pay For The Increasing Costs of Social Security and Medicare?

    NEW YORK, N.Y. – March 9, 2011 – There is something close to a consensus among economists and political leaders who are willing to discuss the subject that, as large numbers of Baby Boomers become 65 or older, the government will have to modify the Medicare and Social Security programs to make them affordable. Present trends they say are unsustainable. All the possible solutions to this problem that have been discussed are unpalatable to many people, but some are more unpopular than others. A new Harris Poll was designed to measure which policies are more or less unpopular, and what the public would prefer if one or more of these policies had to be implemented.

    The results show that raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare and encouraging more people to work over the age of 65 are the least unpopular policies. Raising taxes to pay for the increased costs of these services is more unpopular. Reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits are the most unpopular options.

    These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 3,171 adults surveyed online between February 14 and 21, 2011 by Harris Interactive.

    The main findings of the poll are:

    • When given five choices and asked what they think should happen over the next five years, the policies chosen by the most people are encouraging more people over 65 to work (40%) and increasing the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare (37%);
    • Far fewer believe that we should increase taxes (27%) to pay for these benefits, while hardly anyone thinks we should reduce either Medicare (11%) or Social Security benefits (11%); and
    • When asked which two of the five policy options people would choose if they had to pick two, the numbers increase but the rank order of responses is the same. Encouraging more older people to work (55%) tops the list followed by increasing the age of eligibility (51%). Increasing taxes (37%) is in the middle of the list with only 10% preferring to reduce either Social Security or Medicare benefits.
    Differences by age

    There are sizable differences between the preferences of older and younger generations. Older people, particularly those who are already 65 or older, but also including Baby Boomers, are much more supportive of both encouraging older people to work and increasing the ages of eligibility. Echo Boomers and Gen Xers (all under 46) are less supportive of these options.

    Differences by party

    There are some substantial differences between the attitudes of people who support different parties.

    While large numbers of Republicans, Democrats and Independents choose the two least unpopular options – working longer and raising the age of eligibility – there is (no surprise here) a big difference in their support for increasing taxes. When asked to pick two choices fully 50% of Democrats, but only 21% of Republicans and 38% of Independents choose to raise taxes.

    So What?

    Even if many informed people think that present cost trends are unsustainable it is far from clear what the government will do to address this issue or when. Medicare and Social Security are notoriously tough issues to tackle — the proverbial third rail of politics. But, as and when the issue is addressed, it seems likely that the two least unpopular options, and possibly some tax increases, will be on the table for discussion.

     

    TABLE 1

    WHAT SHOULD WE DO TO SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE TO CONTROL BUDGET DEFICIT?

    Because of the increase in life expectancy, there will be many more old people alive in ten and twenty years time than ever before. As the number of people over 65 increases substantially, the cost of Social Security and Medicare is likely to increase a lot if we do not change these programs. Which of the following do you think we should do in the next five years to control the budget deficit?

    Base: All Adults

    Total

    Generation

    Party I.D.

    Echo

    Boomers

    (18-33)

    Gen. X

    (34-45)

    Baby

    Boomers

    (46-64)

    Matures

    (65+)

    Rep.

    Dem.

    Ind.

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    Encourage many more people over 65 to work

    40

    39

    35

    37

    54

    46

    38

    42

    Increase the age at which one is eligible for Social Security and Medicare

    37

    39

    24

    31

    52

    41

    35

    39

    Increase taxes

    27

    27

    20

    28

    29

    14

    39

    27

    Reduce Medicare benefits

    11

    16

    14

    8

    4

    15

    7

    10

    Reduce Social Security benefits

    11

    17

    9

    7

    4

    16

    6

    13

    None of the above

    33

    29

    43

    38

    28

    32

    28

    36

    Note: Multiple responses allowed.

     

    TABLE 2

    WHAT SHOULD WE DO TO SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE TO CONTROL BUDGET DEFICIT? – TREND

    Because of the increase in life expectancy, there will be many more old people alive in ten and twenty years time than ever before. As the number of people over 65 increases substantially, the cost of Social Security and Medicare is likely to increase a lot if we do not change these programs. Which of the following do you think we should do in the next five years to control the budget deficit?

    Base: All Adults

    Total Jan 2010

    Total

    Feb 2011

    Change 2010-2011

    %

    %

    %

    Encourage many more people over 65 to work

    47

    40

    -7

    Increase the age at which one is eligible for Social Security and Medicare

    30

    37

    +7

    Increase taxes

    21

    27

    +6

    Reduce Medicare benefits

    9

    11

    +2

    Reduce Social Security benefits

    9

    11

    +2

    None of the above

    35

    33

    -2

    Note: Multiple responses allowed.

     

    TABLE 3

    WHAT WE SHOULD DO IF HAD TO PICK TWO THINGS

    Most economists think that it is inevitable that we will have to do one or more of these things, whether we like it or not. If you had to pick two that we should do, which two would you pick?

    Base: All Adults

    Total

    Generation

    Party I.D.

    Echo

    Boomers

    (18-33)

    Gen. X

    (34-45)

    Baby

    Boomers

    (46-64)

    Matures

    (65+)

    Rep

    Dem.

    Ind.

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    Encourage many more people over 65 to work

    55

    45

    57

    60

    66

    59

    53

    58

    Increase the age at which one is eligible for Social Security and Medicare

    51

    47

    41

    48

    73

    60

    49

    52

    Increase taxes

    37

    33

    33

    43

    36

    21

    50

    38

    Reduce Social Security benefits

    10

    17

    13

    7

    3

    15

    6

    10

    Reduce Medicare benefits

    10

    14

    12

    10

    3

    15

    9

    8

    None of the above

    14

    16

    20

    13

    7

    12

    11

    15

    Note: Multiple responses allowed

     

    TABLE 4

    WHAT WE SHOULD DO IF HAD TO PICK TWO THINGS – TREND

    Most economists think that it is inevitable that we will have to do one or more of these things, whether we like it or not. If you had to pick two that we should do, which two would you pick?

    Base: All Adults

    Total Jan 2010

    Total Feb 2011

    Change 2010-2011

    %

    %

    %

    Encourage many more people over 65 to work

    61

    55

    -6

    Increase the age at which one is eligible for Social Security and Medicare

    46

    51

    +5

    Increase taxes

    31

    37

    +6

    Reduce Social Security benefits

    10

    10

    Reduce Medicare benefits

    12

    10

    -2

    None of the above

    17

    14

    -3

    Note: Multiple responses allowed

     

    Methodology

    This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between February 14 to 21, 2011 among 3,171 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

    All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

    Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

    These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

    The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of Harris Interactive.

    J39370

    Q810, 815

    The Harris Poll® #34, March 9, 2011

    By Humphrey Taylor, Chairman, The Harris Poll