Americans Oppose Cutting Entitlements to Fix Budget
By Eric Pianin and Mario Brossard
President Clinton and congressional leaders are promising to balance the budget and cut taxes, but the message from a vast majority of Americans is: Don't do it by reducing spending on Social Security and Medicare, according to a new survey.
Moreover, according to the nationwide poll conducted by The Washington Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than three-quarters of Americans believe the federal budget can be balanced without touching Social Security and Medicare benefits despite claims to the contrary by congressional budget experts.
"They should be able to balance the budget without taking from Social Security or Medicare," said Debra Morrison, a 31-year-old hairdresser from Philadelphia. "How can you take from somewhere that doesn't have it?"
The poll shows that most Americans believe dire forecasts that Social Security and Medicare, the national health care program for the elderly, will go broke in the next century unless Congress takes action soon. But the action most favored by respondents is for Congress to eliminate perceived fraud, waste and abuse in the programs.
"It's the beliefs that people hold about how the entitlement programs are being managed that is driving the views that we don't have to come to grips with the hard decisions," said Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University and a leading expert on public opinion about entitlements.
In the case of Social Security, between half and three-fourths of those interviewed said they would oppose such measures as an across-the-board reduction in future benefits, a gradual increase in the retirement age or an increase in the Social Security payroll tax.
The one approach that is acceptable to a large majority is reducing the benefits of upper-income retirees, although that alone would barely put a dent in the long-term funding problem.
"I'd be in favor of that," said Fred Ayers, 54, a "semi-retired" commercial artist living in Dayton, Ohio, "because the wealthier retirees if they have it to spare they should spare it."
These and other findings of the survey highlight the dilemma for congressional leaders and the White House in reaching agreement on a plan to balance the budget, "fix" Medicare and provide long-term tax relief.
While roughly seven in 10 respondents believe that Medicare and Social Security, the premier federal entitlement programs, will go bankrupt unless the government takes action, relatively few are willing to make personal sacrifices to correct the problem.
"There's only so much you can tax an employer and a worker," explained Patrick Decallier of Indianapolis, a retired government forklift driver. "What happens is they rob Peter to pay Paul, and you can't do that."
But when asked specifically if they would support reduced spending to preserve Medicare for future generations, 70 percent of all respondents said they would. About four in 10 support paying more in Social Security taxes to preserve that program.
"I would be willing to raise taxes to help my children and grandchildren," said Jean Duncan, 64, a retired factory line worker from Tazewell, Tenn., "but I don't think it would be enough because they'll just keep borrowing it."
The survey shows that many are unaware that entitlement programs consume more than 60 percent of the overall budget and that long-term budget balancing would be virtually impossible without changes in Medicare, Social Security and other programs.
"I think they can balance the budget without taking away from Social Security and Medicare," said Pat Henningsen, 44, a grocery store manager in Sandy, Utah. "Why don't they collect the money that other countries owe us, so that we can take care of our own?"
Asked what they considered to be the largest areas of government spending, 64 percent cited foreign aid as the most costly, although that program constitutes barely 1 percent of total government spending. By contrast, only 27 percent of those surveyed believe that Social Security is the costliest program, when one out of every four dollars spent by the federal government goes to cover Social Security benefits.
Wendell Primus, a former Health and Human Services Department official, said the survey results show the critical need for political leadership on entitlement reform and budget balancing. Clinton and GOP congressional leaders fought to a standstill over the budget in 1995 and they continue to have difficulty finding common ground.
"The politician has to lead and educate and move the country toward a consensus on what ought to be done," said Primus, now director of income security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Political leadership also means having the courage to take principled stands that may not initially be popular."
The Post-Harvard-Kaiser Foundation survey of 1,309 adults, the latest in a series of studies examining the intersection of Americans' knowledge and policy preferences, was conducted March 13 to 23. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Two-thirds of respondents correctly described Social Security as a largely pay-as-you go operation, with taxes collected from workers today going to pay benefits for current retires. And half correctly said that the Social Security trust fund is used in calculating the budget deficit. Yet only 28 percent knew that most people, when they retire, get back more in Social Security benefits than they paid in.
The survey found that an individual's knowledge about federal entitlements is an important predictor of his or her overall attitudes: The more people know about Social Security and Medicare, the more concerned they are about the future of the programs and the more anxious they are for government action. They are also the ones most likely to perceive bankruptcy as imminent. Those less knowledgeable about the programs are somewhat more sanguine about the future and are more likely to believe that the solution lies in rooting out waste, fraud and abuse.
Social Security, Medicare and that part of Medicaid that pays for nursing home care for the elderly together account for nearly 40 percent of all non-interest federal spending. They are crowding out funding for other programs and the situation will dramatically worsen in the next century, as baby boomers retire and fewer people will be left in the work force to pay into the funds. Without significant changes, the Medicare hospital trust fund is projected to go bankrupt by 2001 and the Social Security trust fund will face insolvency within the next 30 years.
"People are really confused about what the entitlement crisis is, and that makes it very difficult to discuss reducing benefits, raising taxes, or moving the retirement age," said Blendon, who played a large role in crafting the survey. "Lack of knowledge is driving people away from the solutions that experts and commissions favor, leading to paralysis and inaction."
It is also leading to widespread pessimism. Many of those surveyed indicated that they not only believe the system is in trouble but that they cannot count on Social Security benefits when they finally retire.
Decallier, the retired government forklift operator who is drawing federal civil service pension benefits, said it's a great relief knowing he will never have to depend on Social Security for survival. "Thank God I'm not on Social Security," he said, "because the federal government plays games with the trust fund. If all you're doing is living on a Social Security pension, you're in a world of hurt these days."
Kathy Lewis, a single parent of two in Carson City, Mich., agrees with that assessment and thinks things will only get worse. "I'm 33 years old, and I feel that when I retire I'm not going to have much Social Security to draw from," she said. "If something's not done, I believe it could go bankrupt."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company