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Social Programs: Disconnect Between Congress and the Public


As Democrats and Republicans go hurtling toward draconian deficit reduction with their hair on fire- new polling suggests they do so at their own risk. Solid majorities don’t want anyone messing with the grand social safety net.

Here are the major findings according to Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center:

On the broad question of whether it is more important to reduce the budget deficit or to maintain current Medicare and Social Security benefits, the public decisively supports maintaining the status quo. Six-in-ten (60%) say it is more important to keep Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are; only about half as many (32%) say it is more important to take steps to reduce the budget deficit.

Most Americans also oppose making Medicare recipients more responsible for their health care costs and allowing states to limit Medicaid eligibility. About six-in-ten (61%) say people on Medicare already pay enough of their own health care costs, while only 31% think recipients need to be responsible for more of the costs of their health care in order to make the system financially secure.

So where is this great clamoring for deficit reduction that both parties seem convinced is rampant? And where is the anti-government fever that is also seen as a given?

Republicans face far more serious internal divisions over entitlement reforms than do Democrats. Lower income Republicans are consistently more likely to oppose reductions in benefits – from Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid – than are more affluent Republicans.

Overwhelming numbers of Americans agree that, over the years, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have been good for the country. But these programs receive negative marks for current performance, and their finances are widely viewed as troubled.

The negative marks for current performance, by the way, come from those who haven’t actually been using these programs much. Those who do- the elderly- think they work just fine:

People ages 65 and older are the only age group in which majorities say the three major entitlement programs work well; seniors also overwhelmingly say it is more important to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits than to reduce the budget deficit. Those 50 to 64 also broadly favor keeping benefits as they are. Younger Americans support maintaining Social Security and Medicare benefits, but by smaller margins than older age groups.

It’s ironic that most lawmakers seem to fear the wrath of the public if they don’t cut these entitlement programs. Based on these polling numbers anyway, what they may need to fear are the political consequences of creating gaping holes in the public safety net at a time of genuine economic uncertainty.