Politics

Americans Disagree on How to Fix Entitlement Programs

by Lymari Morales

Do not provide a mandate for raising taxes or cutting benefits to address economic problems

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More than three in four Americans believe the cost of the government's major entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, will create major economic problems for the U.S. in the next 25 years if no changes are made to them. At the same time, Americans do not provide a mandate for raising taxes or cutting benefits to address the situation.

Views on the Major Entitlement Programs the Government Is Committed to, Including Social Security and Medicare, September 2010

While fewer than half of Americans say they favor raising taxes or cutting benefits to address the economic problems they foresee from the government's major entitlement programs, 62% do support one approach or the other. Specifically, 12% favor both options, 30% favor a tax increase but not benefit cuts, and 20% favor benefit cuts but not a tax increase. Still, the data show that there is little consensus on how to address a problem most Americans see looming, and more than one-third of Americans (35%) oppose both options.

Social Security alone, the federal government's largest single program, is expected to pay $703 billion in benefits this year to nearly 53 million Americans. The Social Security Administration says costs will exceed revenues in 2010 and 2011, and every year beginning in 2015 -- so much so that it will become unable to pay full benefits in 2037. Social Security and Medicare outlays are each up about 5% this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index also suggests a growing crunch on resources, having found more Americans on Medicare and Medicaid in September than in any month since it began tracking insurance coverage in January 2008.

While large majorities of Americans in every subgroup say the cost of the government's major entitlement programs will cause major problems, those under 50 and Republicans express the most widespread concern. Democrats are most likely to favor raising taxes and Republicans most likely to favor a cut in benefits.

Views on the Major Entitlement Programs the Government Is Committed to, Including Social Security and Medicare, by Age and Party, September 2010

Increasing Social Security taxes and reducing initial benefits are two of five approaches the CBO has identified to manage the shortfall in that program. Increasing benefits for low earners, increasing the full retirement age, and reducing cost-of-living adjustments applied to continuing benefits are the others.

A Gallup poll conducted in July asked about potential options to address Social Security's balance sheet, and found only minority support for increasing the retirement age, or for increasing Social Security taxes or reducing benefits unless those changes were limited to the wealthy. Gallup has not asked about cost-of-living adjustments, which the government Friday announced would not be made for a second straight year due to low inflation, as measured by the U.S. Consumer Price Index, stemming from the weak economic climate.

Implications

While few Americans name Social Security specifically as one of the most important problems facing the country today, the vast majority of Americans agree that the government's major entitlement programs are likely to cause major economic problems in the next 25 years. Americans' views on the topic are particularly noteworthy in a climate in which there is little consensus about what the government should be fully responsible for -- including providing a minimum living standard for all -- and a high level of concern about government debt.

Americans under 50 are most likely to foresee major economic problems for these programs, but even they do not express a strong mandate to raise taxes or cut benefits as a solution. Nonetheless, the need for action is clear, considering that more nonretirees in 2010 than in 2007 said they expect to rely on Social Security as a major source of income in retirement, and at the same time 60% already do not expect Social Security to be able to pay them a benefit once they retire. Legislators should note that while the issue is a widespread source of concern and draws clear political battle lines, Americans aren't clamoring for the main options on the table.

Survey Methods

Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 13-16, 2010, with a random sample of 1,019 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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