Disappointing Reporting on a Survey about Entitlements

In mid-December, 2012, the Pew Research Center release a report called “A Bipartisan Nation of Beneficiaries.”   It tallied the percentage of responders who participated in any of 6 major federal entitlement programs; Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment insurance, and food stamps.  Then it cross tabulated those answers against demographic information and political affiliation.  As well, it asked for responders’ attitudes toward the benefit programs.

Pew Research generally enjoys a reputation for quality work on significant topics and without partisan bias.  In this instance, cross-tabbing political affiliation against benefit received suggests the point that those who want entitlement cuts despite receiving them are twofaced.  That is a timely political argument during the political scuffle to resolve the “fiscal cliff,” where the partisan divide is whether it’s done with new tax revenues alone or with spending cuts also.

Pew’s analysts knowingly left in respondents over age 61 for Social Security issues and over 64 for Medicare issues in the dataset while calculating overall percentages.  These beneficiaries receive benefits that they “pay for” explicitly through a lifetime of payroll taxes, and in the case of Medicare, through income-adjusted premiums and out of pocket costs.  Social Security and Medicare are very unlike the gratis, means-tested foodstamps, welfare and Medicaid programs.   

It’s not that there is no federal subsidy imbedded in Social Security and Medicare, it’s rather that they are substantially different from other benefits and eligibility is not based on need.  Indeed, explicit payments into Social Security and Medicare are mandatory – which are a lifetime of reminders that seniors should sign up to redeem their government-managed nest eggs.   

The analysis could have been done with and without seniors in the base.  That would have pleased those who want an inflated “percent taking entitlements” and those who want to know the percentage for those of working age and for gratis benefits.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida and following public policy from a consumer’s perspective.

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