Survey Shows Path to Entitlement Reform

Everyone knows that entitlements need to be reformed, but also that doing so is politically very difficult. So difficult that little serious effort has been made by political leaders.

But Americans aren’t unreasonable. After seeing money leave their paychecks and pour into Social Security and Medicare, they don’t want benefit cuts to those programs because they think they’ve explicitly paid for those benefits. But tell them they’ll get all of their money back or that they can opt out and pay for it themselves, and they are open to fixing the third rail of politics. If politicians can muster the courage to take on entitlements, they’ll find taxpayers are ready and waiting for them.

So found a recent Reason Rupe poll. Reason’s polling director, Emily Eakins, explained in a recent Washington Times column:

Politicians are terrified to cut Social Security and Medicare, mostly because poll after poll finds that everyone from Tea Partyers to Teamsters is unwilling to consider benefit cuts. Yet Americans are not as averse to entitlement reform as it seems. Pollsters have just been asking the wrong questions.

A new Reason-Rupe national public opinion poll finds a majority of Americans are actually open to reforming Social Security and Medicare – as long as they get back the money they already have paid into the system. In fact, 61 percent of voters would be willing to cut Social Security benefits and 59 percent willing to cut Medicare benefits if they were guaranteed to get back what they and their employers have contributed into the two programs.

The most recent Reason-Rupe poll started with the standard questions: whether or not respondents would be willing to have their current or future benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget and reduce the debt. Not surprisingly, the results were similar to other polls: 57 percent of Americans oppose Social Security cuts and 51 percent are against Medicare cuts.

However, the poll then asked respondents who oppose reform if they would be open to reductions in their Social Security and Medicare benefits if they were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money they have contributed to the system. Suddenly, 61 percent of Americans were open to accepting reductions in Social Security and 59 percent were willing to agree to Medicare cuts.

And the willingness to agree to entitlement reforms, if people get back what they’ve paid into the system, was consistent across all groups: 65 percent of Tea Party supporters and Republicans were open to cuts, along with 61 percent of independents and 60 percent of Democrats.

(Read the survey results in full here.)

Not only could this point to a viable path for national entitlement reform–which frankly is the only sensible way to get the national deficit and debt under control–but could also inspire new approaches for state and local governments to deal with overhauling their own entitlement programs. Want to roll back over-generous government worker pensions, welfare benefits, or other social service you’ve promised people? Phasing it out with a commitment to initially meet what people think they have paid for or perhaps for expectations they have planned for may be a way to make the reforms more fair, or at least more acceptable.