Social Security & Medicare: Earned Benefits Or Unsustainable Burdens?

Independent Center Contributor Ethan Nelson

At the Independent Center, we polled a nationally representative sample of 1,002 registered voters in our January 2024 National Voters Study. In this article, we will dive into the perceptions and expectations of these voters regarding entitlement programs, national debt, and the long-term sustainability of Social Security and Medicare. You can view the full survey data by joining the movement.

As the United States grapples with a growing national debt, the debate over the role of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare in contributing to this financial burden has become more divisive. Our survey data reveals significant differences in perception across age groups, political ideologies, and geographic areas, highlighting the complex nature of this issue and the challenges in finding common ground.

In our survey, we asked respondents, “Thinking a moment about Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare … Do you believe that a large portion of our national debt comes from unfunded Social Security and Medicare spending obligations?” The results show a clear generational divide: younger people are more likely to view a large portion of the national debt as stemming from unfunded Social Security and Medicare spending obligations, whereas older people don’t. With 49% of 18-24 year olds saying that they see debt stemming from unfunded entitlement programs, and a mere 14% of 65+ year olds saying the same. 

This suggests that younger individuals may be more concerned about the long-term sustainability of these programs, believing that the unfunded obligations will lead to significant financial burdens in the future. They may attribute a substantial portion of the national debt to these unfunded obligations, perceiving the government’s promises to pay future benefits as unsustainable. 

In contrast, older individuals, particularly those currently receiving or close to receiving benefits, may see Social Security and Medicare as earned benefits they have paid into throughout their working lives. They may not consider future obligations as part of the current debt, expecting the programs to continue being funded by current workers, just as they funded the benefits for previous generations.

The difference in perspective may also be influenced by the fact that younger people have a longer time horizon to consider the potential impact of unfunded obligations, while older people may be more focused on the immediate status of the programs.

To understand expectations of various demographics surrounding future Medicare benefits, we asked, “Do you expect to receive Medicare benefits in your lifetime?” The data showed a clear generational trend: 94% of respondents aged 65 and older expect to receive Medicare benefits, while this percentage steadily declines among younger age groups. Only 46% of 18-24 year olds believe they will receive Medicare benefits in their lifetime, suggesting an ever growing skepticism about the program’s long-term viability among younger generations. This implies that younger generations have an entirely different approach to policies surrounding entitlement programs than older generations do, leading to significant intergenerational disagreements.

To gauge public opinion on the future direction of entitlement programs, we asked respondents, “What do you think would be the best path forward regarding entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare?” Participants were given three options: 

  1. We should reform the way entitlement programs are paid for and distributed.
  2. We should modernize the entitlement programs are paid for and distributed.
  3. We should maintain the current policies with how entitlement programs are paid for and distributed.

By presenting these distinct choices, we aimed to assess the level of support for reforming, modernizing, or preserving the existing framework of these crucial social welfare programs. The data revealed that younger age groups are more supportive of reforming and modernizing entitlement programs, with 24% of 18-24 year olds and 31% of 30-39 year olds saying entitlement programs should be reformed. In comparison, older age groups are less supportive of modernization and reform, with only 17% of 65+ year olds supporting reform. The oldest group (65+) is among the most likely to say the programs should be maintained, with 32% supporting this option, compared to 26% of 18-24 year olds and a mere 10% of 25-29 year olds saying the same. 

Finally, to gauge concerns about the future of Social Security, we asked, “How worried are you to hear that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be depleted in 2031?” providing options to express their level of worry. The data reveals a substantial generational divide and a clear partisan split in how Americans relate to this pressing issue.

According to ongoing Gallup polling (including data from 2024), the intergenerational tension surrounding the state of Medicare and Social Security is palpable. The survey reveals that more Americans are dissatisfied than satisfied with the current state of Entitlement programs. This implies that the current generational divide in perception has fueled a growing sense of dissatisfaction, as younger and older Americans grapple with differing expectations and priorities concerning the future of entitlement programs. 

Our survey found that younger age groups are less worried about the Medicare Trust Fund depleting than older age groups. Among those aged 18-24, 62% reported being either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about the depletion of the fund. This could be attributed to the fact that younger individuals may perceive the issue as a distant problem, as they are further away from retirement age and may not yet be as reliant on Medicare. In contrast, a significantly higher proportion of older age groups expressed concern, with 83% of those aged 40-49 and 79% of those 65 and older indicating that they are worried about the Medicare Trust Fund’s future. These older generations are likely more concerned because they are closer to or already at the age where Medicare becomes a crucial aspect of their healthcare coverage.

The generational and ideological divides revealed by our survey data paint a vivid picture of a nation grappling with the future of its most crucial social welfare programs. In the end, the future of Medicare and Social Security is not just a matter of policy; it’s a reflection of our values as a nation. By continuing to engage in constructive dialogue, by listening to the voices of all Americans, and by working towards solutions that balance competing priorities, we can ensure that these vital programs remain a source of pride and security for generations to come. 

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