Most Elderly Favor Keeping Social Programs Over Debt Trim

Most Americans believe in trimming the nation’s debt, just not during their retirement, according to a Pew Research Center survey released today.

While advocating smaller government, a majority of people over the age of 30 say entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare should be protected, even at the expense of curbing the nation’s $16 trillion debt, the survey found.

Adults younger than 30 are more conflicted about the deficit-versus-entitlements tradeoff, with 48 percent believing it’s more important to preserve the programs and 41 percent favoring deficit reduction.

“There’s a lot of self-interest and a lot of contradictory views,” said Kimberly Parker, associate director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project in Washington. “While we see different views about the role of government, there’s a strong commitment among families that generations have to take care of each other.”

The survey underscores the dilemma faced by the White House and Congress as they seek to resolve a budget impasse before more than $600 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts begin in January if an agreement isn’t reached. President Barack Obama is demanding tax increases on the highest-earning Americans, while Republicans are calling for cuts in entitlement programs.

Senior Support

Elderly people who favor keeping Social Security and Medicare at current levels outnumber their counterparts who think the deficit is more important by a 3-to-1 margin, highlighting the generational support for the nation’s two largest social programs.

The elderly, who supported Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by a 56-44 percent margin, are more likely to support the social programs that the Republicans pledged to change; those from 18 to 19, who voted for Obama by a 60-37 percent margin, are more concerned about deficit reduction than their elders.

Disagreement among generations extended into the role of government. Almost three of five people younger than 30 say they believe government should take a more active role. Barely one- third of older voters say government needs to do more. Republicans narrowly favor reducing the deficit over preserving the benefit programs, 45-42 percent. Democrats favor emphasizing preserving Social Security by a 69-21 percent margin.

No War

Even with the differences between younger and older adults, Pew researchers said they found “no indication of a broader generational war.” Only 28 percent of adults say they think strong conflicts exist between young and old Americans. The survey says conflicts between Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor people, immigrants and native-born Americans, and blacks and whites are more pronounced.

Eighty-four percent of adults younger than 30 say it’s their responsibility to provide financial assistance to an elderly parent, and 58 percent say they expect to have to take care of older relatives in the future.

Even so, a slight majority of young adults believe that keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits at their existing levels will place too much of a financial burden on them. A slight majority of older Americans disagree.

The Pew survey found strong support for reducing benefits for high-income Americans and asking well-off households to bear a fair share for the programs. Social Security is funded by a 4.2 percent payroll tax on the first $110,100 in wages, with the levy scheduled to revert to 6.2 percent in 2013 unless Congress takes action.

Paying More

Social Security trustees estimated in an April report that the $773 billion program’s retirement, disability and survivor trust funds will be exhausted in 2033, as 10,000 baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 leave the workforce every day. The Census Bureau estimates 32.6 million U.S. households, or 28 percent, collected Social Security income in 2011.

Two-thirds of adults surveyed by Pew say they favor requiring well-off households to pay more to support the program. Fifty-five percent say they support reducing benefits for wealthy seniors. Only 38 percent recommend raising the retirement age, set at 67 for people born after 1960.

A similar majority support reducing benefits for high- income seniors who receive medical treatment paid by Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for approximately 50 million elderly and disabled. The primary Medicare trust fund is slated to run dry in 2024, trustees said in an April report.

Sixty percent of people surveyed say affluent seniors should bear more of the costs of their health care. Only 35 percent say the eligibility age for Medicare should be raised; most people can benefit from Medicare when they turn 65.

Barely a third of young adults favored raising retirement ages, while 49 percent of senior citizens supported increasing the minimum age to participate in Social Security.

The telephone survey of 2,511 adults was conducted between Nov. 28 and Dec. 5. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

To contact the reporter on this story: Frank Bass in New York at fbass1@bloomberg.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flynn McRoberts in Chicago at fmcroberts1@bloomberg.net; Mark McQuillan in Washington at mmcquillan@bloomberg.net.

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