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Public Opinion and Social Insurance: The American Experience (WP-08-03)

Fay Lomax Cook and Meredith B. Czaplewski

Although both Social Security and Medicare have experienced enormous public support in the past, in the last decade critics have called the programs into question as bad investments, financially unsustainable, and ready for major reforms. At the policy elite level, the discussion about Social Security and Medicare has gone from a politics of consensus in which there was widespread support and relatively few public expressed differences of opinion to what might be called a politics of dissensus where disagreement has been heated. At a time when the debates about Social Security and Medicare are likely to continue and when various reform proposals are being discussed, the purpose of this paper is to step back and assess where the public's views of the two programs stand and what reforms, if any, the public favors. To what extent do the two "pillars of public opinion" on which the programs rest—commitment to the purpose of the programs and belief that they are affordable public expenditures—remain strong? Using dozens of public opinion polls over a number of years, we find that members of the public are highly committed to the two programs but have concerns about the programs' financial situation. To address their financial concerns, members of the public have voiced support for a few incremental changes and opposition to a number of others. We conclude by suggesting that it behooves policymakers to take a careful look at where the public stands and build on that support in order to overcome the current politics of dissensus.

Fay Lomax Cook, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy; Director and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Meredith B. Czaplewski, Graduate Student, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University

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