Taxes Can Make 'Medicare For All' More Popular — Or Less

There's a lot at stake in the debate over how to pay for "Medicare for All."

More Americans support the idea of a government health care program that covers everybody than oppose it ― but support is still short of a majority, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll.

The polling, conducted Oct. 11-12 and Oct. 18-20, found support for “Medicare for All” at 43% (Oct. 11-12) and 44% (Oct. 18-20) when a source for funding wasn’t mentioned at all. Support for such a program dipped if it would be paid for with a payroll tax on workers.

But half of Americans said they would support a Medicare for All proposal if it’s financed by an annual tax on people whose net worth is above $50 million. Only one-third of those surveyed said they opposed Medicare for All if it’s paid for with a so-called wealth tax.

The variation in support highlights the fact that Americans’ opinions about Medicare for All remain fairly malleable and that support depends on assumptions about how such a program would work and be funded.

“Half of Americans said they would support a 'Medicare for All' proposal if it’s financed by an annual tax on people worth more than $50 million.”

How to pay for a single-payer health system has become a pressing question in the Democratic presidential primary, with candidates berating Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for refusing to admit she supports higher taxes as part of the proposal.

Taxing the rich has long been popular in the U.S., but a problem for Warren is that she has already said she’d use a tax on people worth $50 million for her education plan. Another problem is that according to several analysts, other taxes on the rich probably wouldn’t raise enough revenue to cover Medicare for All.

In her public statements, Warren has implied that she’d support new taxes on the middle class as part of her health plan, but she has not said so directly. Instead, she has suggested taxes would replace more onerous health costs such as premiums and deductibles, and she’s insisted the trade-off would benefit the middle class.

“Costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations, and for hard-working middle-class families, costs will go down,” Warren said at a debate this month.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), by contrast, has explicitly said “it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” especially for the wealthy, but the middle class will pay “substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.”

In the past, Sanders has floated several new taxes that could be used to offset the cost of Medicare for All, though he has not outright embraced any of them. Options include higher federal income taxes on the wealthy and a 7.5% payroll tax on employers, which would apply in lieu of monthly premiums that currently cost employers more than $14,000 annually per employee.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) campaigns at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Oct. 24, 2019.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) campaigns at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Oct. 24, 2019.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

HuffPost/YouGov polling suggests middle-class taxes are indeed a tough sell. If Medicare for All is paid for with a new payroll tax, 36% of Americans say they’d favor it, while 39% said they’d be opposed.

When the question was framed as a trade-off ― a Medicare for All plan “that reduced your health care costs but increased the amount you pay in taxes” ― only 35% said they supported the proposal, and 42% were opposed. The policy’s proponents, citing favorable cost estimates, say putting the federal government in charge would be more efficient and cheaper than the current system with its patchwork of private insurers. Consumers would save money as a result.

But so far, the American public hasn’t necessarily bought into the idea that Medicare for All will save them money. Just 20% expect that they’d pay less under a such a plan, while 54% expect to pay the same or more, and 27% aren’t sure.

Even people who like the proposal don’t necessarily expect it to lower their health care costs: Of those who say they support Medicare for All, just 35% expect it to lower their health care costs, with an equal 35% assuming they’d pay the same, and 13% saying they’d have to shell out more.

The survey results point to a decadeslong American political stalemate over taxes. Republicans are the party of tax cuts, but so are Democrats, who are willing to endorse taxing the rich but shy away from defending taxes on anyone else.

Vanessa Williamson, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies public opinion and taxes, said higher taxes could become more popular if politicians like Warren offered a more forthright defense.

“Public opinion on policy is to a substantial degree an outcome of politics,” Williamson said in an email. “It is not a pre-existing landscape in which politics occurs.”

The HuffPost/YouGov polls each consisted of 1,000 completed interviews. They were conducted Oct. 11-12 and Oct. 18-20 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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