August 13, 2012

Older Americans Have Been Highly Resistant to Medicare Changes

Older Americans are wary of changes to Medicare. Compared with younger people, they are more positive about the way the program operates, less apt to think that changes are needed and far less disposed towards Paul Ryan’s proposal to reshape Medicare.

A Pew Research survey in May of 2011 found that those 65 and older had a negative reaction to Ryan’s plan to change Medicare: 51% opposed the plan (including 43% who opposed it strongly) compared with only 25% who favored the plan. People under the age of 50 offered far more support than those over 50 for Ryan’s Medicare plan.

A June 2011 survey found that most seniors said they were happy with how Medicare and Social Security operated. About six-in-ten (61%) said Medicare does an excellent or good job serving the people it covers; 57% said the same about Social Security. By contrast, most of those under 65 said these programs do an only fair or poor job.

In addition, just 33% of those 65 and older said they think Medicare needs major changes or needs to be completely rebuilt. Similarly, few seniors (30%) supported major changes or a complete rebuilding of Social Security. Support for changing Social Security and Medicare was far higher among those under 65.

Voters 65 and older are much more likely than younger voters to name Social Security as a top potential voting issue. A June 2012 survey found about as many senior voters saying Social Security is the issue that matters most to their vote (45%) as saying jobs (48%).

Seniors – along with the public overall – prioritize the protection of Medicare and Social Security benefits over deficit reduction by wide margins. In June 2011, two-thirds (66%) of those 65 and older said it is more important to keep Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are compared with just (20%) who prioritized deficit reduction.

A wide majority of seniors (66%) said people on Medicare already pay enough of the cost of their health care, compared with 24% who said people on Medicare need to be responsible for more costs to keep the program financially secure. Most seniors (54%) also said low income people should not have their Medicaid benefits taken away, compared with 34% who said states should be able to cut back on who is eligible for Medicaid to deal with budget problems.

Divides in GOP Base over Entitlement Changes

In addition to presenting challenges among seniors, the issue of entitlements divides the GOP base.

Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 63% of those with family incomes of $75,000 or more say it is more important to take steps to reduce the budget deficit; a nearly identical percentage (62%) of Republicans with incomes of $30,000 or less say it is more important to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are.

The income gap among Republicans and Republican leaners is about as large as the difference between GOP supporters of the Tea Party and non-supporters. Among Republicans and Republican leaners who agree with the Tea Party, 57% view deficit reduction as more important than preserving Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are. Among Republicans and leaners who do not agree with the Tea Party, just 36% say that reducing the deficit is more important than maintaining benefits.

For more on entitlements see: “Public Wants Changes in Entitlements, Not Changes in Benefits,” released July 7, 2011 and section six of “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” released November 3, 2011.