For seniors, entitlement worries extend to the grandkids
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Possible changes to Medicare and Social Security have become the top political concern for older U.S. voters this year - and not just because of the effect on their own pocketbooks.
This is national Grandparents Week, a good time to ask how the presidential candidates' reform plans would affect not just today's older people but also their children and grandchildren.
In the political battle raging over the two programs, both Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney say they would "preserve," "protect" and "strengthen" Social Security and Medicare. But those words leave plenty of room for cutting benefits as part of broader approaches to shoring up the programs' finances.
In the wake of the Great Recession, older Americans, especially in middle-income and lower-income brackets, are relying on these programs more than ever. A July poll by AARP of voters over age 50 found that 76 percent with annual income below $50,000 will rely more heavily on Social Security and Medicare in retirement than they had previously planned.
About 65 percent of Americans over 50 oppose changing Social Security or Medicare to help reduce the federal deficit - much higher than any other age group, according to polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which has surveyed Americans extensively on entitlement programs.
Older people's direct experience with both programs helps explain the strong support, according to Michael Dimock, Pew's associate director of research. But older generations also tend to think about Social Security and Medicare in terms of their children and grandchildren.
"Most older people who get involved in protecting Social Security will tell you they want to make sure it's there for their children and grandchildren," said Donna Butts, executive director of advocacy and public policy group Generations United.
"They may already be receiving it, so any changes won't impact them," she said. "But they feel strongly about the system."
Moreover, grandparents' concerns extend well beyond Social Security and Medicare. AARP's most recent survey of grandparents found a high level of worry about the future facing their children and grandchildren.
And grandparents who can afford it are stepping up their support for their grandchildren. The survey showed 53 percent were helping to pay for education, 23 percent for medical and dental services, and 37 percent for everyday living expenses.
"Seniors sometimes are portrayed as just being in it for themselves," says Amy Goyer, an expert on multigenerational and family issues at AARP. "But time after time, that's not what our research shows."
"The biggest difference between young and old on Medicare and Social Security is their impression of how well these systems work," Pew's Dimock says. "It isn't about altruism or selfishness - seniors like Medicare and Social Security because they see the reality of how they work. Many younger people haven't had those experiences."
Pew data shows that 57 percent of Americans over age 65 think Social Security does an excellent or good job serving the people it covers, and 61 percent have similar attitudes about Medicare. A majority of younger people give both programs poor marks.
But those numbers do not tell the whole story. Although many people think of Social Security and Medicare as programs for the elderly, both actually have a wide multigenerational impact.
Social Security benefits are received by 3.3 million children under 18 due to a parent's death, disability or retirement. Another 3.4 million children live in households where someone else is receiving Social Security. And Medicare provides healthcare coverage to older people who in many cases would otherwise be a financial burden to their children.
What is more, the recession has caused different age groups to depend on each other. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of multigenerational households jumped more than 10 percent to 51.4 million from 46.5 million, Pew reports.
And Pew's research shows that people living with someone who receives Medicare or Social Security benefits are more likely to give the programs positive ratings.
The polling and economic statistics all point in one direction: By all means, strengthen and protect Social Security and Medicare for future generations - but do not do it by slashing benefits.
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. For more from Mark Miller, see link.reuters.com/qyk97s)
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(Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Lisa Von Ahn)
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