Saturday, July 4, 2015

More conventional wisdom

When the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was passed, opinion was pretty evenly divided, but most polls showed more opposed than in favor.  Five years later, the situation is pretty much the same.  This is in contrast to earlier programs like Social Security and Medicare, on which opinion was divided when the were passed but soon became overwhelmingly favorable.  At least that's what I've always thought about those programs, and it seems to be the conventional view.  However, Theda Skocpol and Lawrence Jacobs say that "Social Security remained politically vulnerable until the 1950s and did not become broadly popular or embedded in economic life until reforms under President Richard M. Nixon raised benefits for the poor and the middle class."

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935, the same year that the Gallup Poll began, and the first check was issued in 1940.  This is a pretty complete list of opinion questions about Social Security asked in the early years:   

Dec 1937.  "The present Social Security law does not cover household help, sailors, farm workers, and employees in small shops. Do you think the law should be extended to include these workers?" yes:  74%   no:   26%

Dec 1937:  "Do you approve of the present Social Security tax on wages?"
yes:  73%  no:  27%

yes:  78%  no:  18%

April 1943 (NORC):  "As you may know, under the present Social Security Law, workers in certain occupations have to save money so when they are too old to work they will receive money from the government, like insurance. Do you think this is a good idea or a bad idea?"
good idea:  95% bad idea 3%

Debate over domestic issues was muted during the war, so to be fair I'll add a question from 1946.  There was a sharp move to the right in that election, with Republicans winning control of both houses of Congress (one of the new members of the House was Richard Nixon):

Dec 1946 (Roper/Fortune):  "Would you like to see Social Security extended so that more people will get payments under it, changed so that fewer people will get payment under it, or left about as it is now? "
more:  49%  fewer:  2%  same 34%

Social Security was clearly "broadly popular" long before Nixon became president.  Unfortunately, it's not possible to say whether it was popular when first proposed or whether it became popular soon after it was enacted.  With Medicare, there was a shift--opinion was pretty evenly divided when it was proposed but swung in favor.  

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


  1. To the extent that the Congressional vote is a proxy for public sentiment - as, ideally, it is supposed to be - there is some evidence from that.

    Social Security Act (1935):
    House: passed 372-33
    Senate: passed 77-6

    Affordable Care Act (2010):
    House: passed 219-212
    Senate: passed 60-39 [60 being the minimum required vote for cloture]

    And, as is well known, the ACA vote was essentially on party lines while the SSA vote was very broadly bipartisan.

    1. Interesting--I assumed that it had passed easily, but wouldn't have guessed that it got more than 90% of the votes in congress. I have since found several other questions that referred to "old age pensions" rather than Social Security going back as far as December 1935 (the Social Security Act was passed in August 1935) and they all showed strong majorities in favor.