WASHINGTON — Most Americans say they don't believe Medicare or Social Security have to be cut to balance the federal budget, a new poll shows.
The Associated Press-GfK poll suggests that arguments for overhauling the massive benefit programs to pare government debt have failed to sway the public. The debate is unlikely to be resolved before next year's elections for president and Congress.
Americans worry about the future of the retirement safety net, the poll found, and 3 out of 5 say the two programs are vital to their basic financial security as they age.
That helps explain why the Republican Medicare privatization plan flopped, and why President Obama's Medicare cuts to finance his health care law contributed to Democrats losing control of the House in last year's elections.
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Medicare seems to be turning into a political hot potato.
"I'm pretty confident Medicare will be there, because there would be a rebellion among voters," said Nicholas Read, 67, a retired teacher who lives near Buffalo, N.Y. "Republicans only got a hint of that this year. They got burned. They touched the hot stove."
Combined, Social Security and Medicare account for about a third of government spending, a share that will only grow. Economic experts say the cost of retirement programs for an aging society is the most serious budget problem facing the nation.
The trustees who oversee Social Security and Medicare recently warned that the programs are "not sustainable" over the long run under current financing.
Nearly every solution for Social Security is politically toxic, because the choices involve cutting benefits or raising taxes. Medicare is even harder to fix because the cost of modern medicine is going up faster than the cost of living, outpacing economic growth as well as tax revenue.
"Medicare is an incredibly complex area," said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who used to chair the Budget Committee. "It's a matrix that is almost incomprehensible. Unlike Social Security, which has four or five moving parts, Medicare has hundreds of thousands. There is no single approach to Medicare, whereas with Social Security everyone knows where the problem is."
That's not what the public sees, however.
"It's more a matter of bungling, and lack of oversight, and waste and fraud, and padding of the bureaucracy," said Carolyn Rodgers, who lives near Memphis, Tenn., and is still working as a legal assistant at 74. "There is no reason why even Medicare, if it had been handled right, couldn't have been solvent."
In the poll, 54 percent said it's possible to balance the budget without cutting spending for Medicare, and 59 percent said the same about Social Security.
Taking both programs together, 48 percent said the government could balance the budget without cutting either one. Democrats and political independents were far more likely than Republicans to say that neither program will have to be cut.
Overall, 70 percent in the poll said Social Security is "extremely" or "very" important to their financial security in retirement, and 72 percent said so for Medicare. Sixty-two percent said that both programs are extremely or very important.
The sentiment was much stronger among the elderly. Eighty-four percent of those 65 or older said both programs are central to their financial security. Compare that to adults under 30, just starting out. Just under half, or 46 percent, said they believed both Social Security and Medicare would be extremely or very important to their financial security in retirement.
"Health insurance these days is very costly, and it's not something that most people can afford to go out and buy on their own," said Tim Messner, 38, a technology quality assurance analyst from Barberton, Ohio. "I don't know that we could possibly plan ahead for medical insurance, but if you had to replace Social Security or investments, you at least have an idea of what you can live on."
Effect of health costs
Numbers tell the story. As health care goes up, the value of Medicare benefits is catching up to Social Security's. A two-earner couple with average wages retiring in 1980 would have expected to receive health care worth $132,000 through Medicare over their remaining lifetimes, and $446,000 — about three times more — in Social Security payments.
For a similar couple who retired last year, the Medicare benefit will be worth $343,000, compared to Social Security payments totaling $539,000, less than twice as much.
The numbers, from economists at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, are adjusted for inflation to allow direct comparison. For low-income single retirees and some couples, the value of expected Medicare benefits already exceeds that of Social Security.
The poll found a deep current of pessimism about the future of Social Security and Medicare. As much as Americans say the programs are indispensable, only 35 percent say it's extremely or very likely that Social Security will be there to pay benefits through their entire retirement. For Medicare, it was 36 percent.
Republican lawmakers don't inspire much confidence when it comes to dealing with retirement programs, the poll found. Democrats have the advantage as the party more trusted to do a better job handling Social Security by 52 percent to 34 percent, and Medicare by 54 percent to 33 percent.
The Associated Press-GfK poll was conducted May 5-9, 2011, by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.