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EKINS: Key to entitlement reform: Full refund

Taxpayers will go along if they don’t get robbed in the process

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Politicians are terrified to cut Social Security and Medicare, mostly because poll after poll finds that everyone from Tea Partyers to Teamsters is unwilling to consider benefit cuts. Yet Americans are not as averse to entitlement reform as it seems. Pollsters have just been asking the wrong questions.

A new Reason-Rupe national public opinion poll finds a majority of Americans are actually open to reforming Social Security and Medicare - as long as they get back the money they already have paid into the system. In fact, 61 percent of voters would be willing to cut Social Security benefits and 59 percent willing to cut Medicare benefits if they were guaranteed to get back what they and their employers have contributed into the two programs.

The most recent Reason-Rupe poll started with the standard questions: whether or not respondents would be willing to have their current or future benefits reduced as part of a plan to balance the federal budget and reduce the debt. Not surprisingly, the results were similar to other polls: 57 percent of Americans oppose Social Security cuts and 51 percent are against Medicare cuts.

However, the poll then asked respondents who oppose reform if they would be open to reductions in their Social Security and Medicare benefits if they were still guaranteed to receive at least the amount of money they have contributed to the system. Suddenly, 61 percent of Americans were open to accepting reductions in Social Security and 59 percent were willing to agree to Medicare cuts.

And the willingness to agree to entitlement reforms, if people get back what they've paid into the system, was consistent across all groups: 65 percent of Tea Party supporters and Republicans were open to cuts, along with 61 percent of independents and 60 percent of Democrats.

These data reveal important information about how the public conceptualizes entitlements and what policymakers must consider if they hope to reform the system.

Entitlements arguably have two components. First is a "contributive" component, which many Americans perceive as the money the government takes out of their paychecks and they view as contributing to their own retirements. Because all working people pay into Social Security and Medicare from their paychecks, they feel they bought into the system.

Then there's the "redistributive" component, whereby some Americans with lower lifetime earnings receive more from these programs than they pay into them. Surely, not all Americans take the time to identify these two components or determine if they agree with both or one or the other.

But support for Social Security and Medicare is largely driven by the "contributive" element. Americans simply want to recoup the money they contribute to the system. They just want their money back. If policymakers can communicate that entitlement reform will not rip off contributions, they may be able to garner enough public support for meaningful reforms.

We see the same concept at work when Americans are asked about letting people opt out of paying for Social Security and Medicare. The Reason-Rupe poll found 54 percent of Americans favor allowing workers to opt out of Social Security if they choose to rely on their own retirement savings. And 56 percent would let workers opt out of Medicare if they want to pay for their own health care in retirement.

Americans aren't unreasonable. After seeing money leave their paychecks and pour into Social Security and Medicare, they don't want benefit cuts to those programs because they think they've explicitly paid for those benefits. But tell them they'll get all of their money back or that they can opt out and pay for it themselves, and they are open to fixing the third rail of politics. If politicians can muster the courage to take on entitlements, they'll find taxpayers are ready and waiting for them.

Emily Ekins is director of polling at the Reason Foundation (reason.com/poll).

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