Academic journal article Generations

Policies for Aging Americans: A Look at Public Opinion and the Role of Government

Academic journal article Generations

Policies for Aging Americans: A Look at Public Opinion and the Role of Government

Article excerpt

Understanding American attitudes about public policy is a challenge in an intensely complex political world. The media, political heuristics, biased processing, and hyper-partisan times, to name only some factors, all undoubtedly play a role, but are beyond the scope of this article. Of particular interest is how and why Americans sometimes choose to support public programs.

Americans often support seemingly contradictory concepts; in the same breath in which they call for smaller government and individual freedoms, they support increased government involvement through public programs. Free and Cantril (1968) call this a contrast between operational liberalism and ideological conservatism, while Page and Jacobs (2009) describe most Americans as both philosophical conservatives and pragmatic egalitarians (so-called conservative egalitarians) because of this disjuncture.

Illustrating this complexity in 2009, at the height of the conflict over the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama discussed a letter he had received from a female constituent. "She said, 'I don't want government-run health care. I don't want socialized medicine. And don't touch my Medicare' " (Cesca, 2009).

In another case during the same time period, Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC) described an individual at a town hall who told him, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" (Rucker, 2009). At the time, many decried these statements as evidence of widespread misinformation and misunderstanding when it comes to government policy, because Medicare is, after all, government-subsidized, single payer healthcare for older Americans.

Such confusion also exemplifies the disconnect between how much government involvement people think they want and which benefits they would like their government to provide. These two concepts should be harmonious, but that is hardly the case in studies of American political attitudes. Attitudes about older age benefits constitute one arena from which to explore this conflict and related complexities.

For decades, the primary older age benefits in the United States-Social Security and Medicare-have experienced widespread public support. But do Americans always support government programs to help older Americans? More importantly, are there limits to this support? The oft-repeated notion has long been that Social Security, in particular, and Medicare are each the "third rail of politics"; they are policies that (electorally motivated) politicians should steer clear of challenging. Widespread support of Social Security is based on public belief in the program's purpose and its perceived degree of affordability (Marttila, 2005; Cook and Barrett, 1992). Ellwood (1988) identified Social Security's nearly unanimous popularity as being due to its unique structure of universal access and its connection to work and family. But, in some key ways, there are changes afoot that might undermine this long-standing, dominant position.

According to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau (2018), one in every five residents will be of retirement age by 2030. By 2035, there will be more adults older than age 65 than there are children younger than age 18 and, by 2060, older adults will make up 23.5 percent of the population. In the very near future (2020), for every individual of retirement age there will be only three-anda-half working-age adults (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). These developments are significant for public policy and the future of benefits for older Americans. They create real policy challenges related to the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare at current demographic levels and the new needs as the older cohort grows. Critics of the programs have often argued for reform based on (often unsubstantiated) claims about the decline of public confidence (Cook, Barabas, and Page, 2002). Common reform ideas, most significantly privatization, would be a direct challenge to the root of the original public policy programs. …

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