Budget Heroes of all parties back Social Security changes

Dave Gustafson
Public Insight Network

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Firearm and immigration issues have dominated the news out of Washington lately, but many Americans say they are most concerned about economic topics, including the state of the federal debt, the size of the national deficit and shoring up Social Security and Medicare.

Those issues of budget and finance will take center stage in the coming months as the White House seeks a “grand bargain” with congressional Republicans over taxes, spending and entitlements.

Today, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office published its new 10-year estimates of federal spending, tax revenues and deficits. Its analysis of President Obama’s budget plan will be released Friday.

Since his second inauguration, Obama has pitched changes to Social Security and Medicare as part of a budget plan that the White House says would point the nation on a path toward reducing the national deficit. While he says his proposals were designed to meet congressional Republicans halfway, they make some of the president’s Democratic colleagues nervous as they look ahead to midterm elections.

With entitlements set to take center stage in Washington’s latest round of budget battles, we took the opportunity to find out how players of Budget Hero approached such hot-button federal issues.

Let’s start with Budget Heroes en masse. (Later this week, we’ll hear some individual players’ views on federal spending.) Since 2008, the game has been played more than 1.6 million times. While most players choose to remain anonymous, nearly 50,000 players shared their demographic information through the Public Insight Network.

Working with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Jefferson Institute (with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation), we’ve created a data visualization that lets you explore the policy options Budget Heroes preferred as they played the game between May 2008 and December 2012, broken down by players’ demographics.

Take a look.

A majority of players who identified themselves across political parties tended to both raise the Social Security age and to slowly increase Social Security benefits.

That data contradicts a Pew Research Center survey from late 2012 in which 56 percent of Americans polled said they opposed gradually raising the age at which people can begin receiving Social Security benefits. Thirty-eight percent of those polled matched the Budget Hero players, and were in favor of raising the minimum age.

To be clear: Budget Hero isn’t a scientific poll. Each version of the game has included dozens of different tax and policy options for players to pick. Since its launch, Budget Hero has undergone three major revisions to allow players to choose from among the latest economic projections and policy options being seriously considered by lawmakers. And because it’s a game, players’ choices do not necessarily reflect their political beliefs directly.

While the most recent Budget Heroes of all political stripes have largely been willing to calculate Social Security increases using the chained Consumer Price Index, an AARP survey released in April found “broad bipartisan opposition to chained CPI among voters over 50, with 69 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of unaffiliated voters in agreement that Congress should not support the policy.”

Despite Budget Heroes’ widespread willingness to make changes to Social Security, players were far less receptive to the idea of gradually raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

That option was most popular among self-identified Republicans and Libertarians from May 2008 through July 2011, but it saw huge drops in popularity across the board from July 2011 through December 2012, especially among Republicans and Libertarians. It’s been more popular among players who identify as Democrats and independents in that same time frame.

Of course, the game launched in 2008, as the United States was beginning to feel some of the toughest effects of the economic collapse.

What did you find interesting in the Budget Hero data visualization? Share your insights through the Public Insight Network.

We’re planning to launch another major Budget Hero iteration this summer, based on the latest CBO projections of federal spending, revenue and the president’s budget proposals. Follow @BudgetHero to find out when the new version is released. If you haven’t played the game before — or if it’s been a while, – give Budget Hero a shot.


Dave Gustafson Reporter
Public Insight Network
Dave Gustafson is a Public Insight Network reporter -- and the first-ever reporter hired to do journalism out of gamification. He embedded with Patchwork Nation, a project of the Jefferson Institute, to report around the Budget Hero game in June. Born in an Industrial Metropolis, he grew up in Service Worker Center and Campus and Careers community types. He now lives in a Monied Burb near Washington, D.C. Most recently, Dave was acting managing editor for digital news at the PBS NewsHour.