Public not as anti-government as you might think

Mark Humphrey/AP

The general public is less hostile to government spending and to raising taxes than the average tea party enthusiast, but is assigning an increasingly higher priority to deficit reduction and supports such measures as freezing federal salaries, a leading polling analyst said Friday.

In a study of data from multiple national polls from the past two years, Michael Dimock, associate director of research for the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, offered a counterweight to some conventional readings of the nation’s mood on the question of “how much government do people want.”

Addressing a discussion organized by the National Academy of Public Administration, Dimock said the public’s preference for “smaller government providing fewer services” has inched upward since the 2008 election, to 48 percent, compared with only 41 percent who want a “bigger government providing more services.”

But taking a longer view, he added, those favoring smaller government declined in number since the mid-1990s from a high of 68 percent; those favoring bigger government grew from a low of 23 percent.

Asked about attitudes toward government pay and benefits, Dimock said the current federal salary freeze generally polled well. During times of economic uncertainty, he added, “most people have an impression that government jobs are good jobs, and their sense of fairness tells them that the uncertainty should be applied more equally.”

“The moment we’re in can hardly be called an extreme one” in terms of distrust, but the perception is that people turned against the government, Dimock said. The reasons for the disconnect include the rhetoric that ideological political strategists use in framing the results of the tumultuous 2010 elections and the fact that turnout for Republicans that year was 14 points higher than for Democrats. If one factors in the nonvoters’ preferences on the size and priorities of government, he said, the general public is less anti-government than the tea party.

Levels of trust in government, however, dropped steadily from just below 60 percent in 2002 to under 20 percent in 2010.

Exit polls from the largely anti-incumbent 2010 election show the public evenly split on the size of government, with 48 percent saying government is doing too many things and 43 percent saying government should do more to solve problems, the Pew data show.

But average Americans, like many politicians, are ambivalent about government and value many of the programs that would be cut under most deficit-cutting scenarios. The Pew data show the programs the public would most like to cut are “aid to the world’s needy,” military defense and unemployment aid. The programs least favored for cutting are education, veterans benefits, and Social Security and Medicare.

The biggest change in the past two years in priorities is in health care, where the number who would lower government spending rose 14 percentage points, the pollster said.

Not surprisingly, party affiliation affects views on spending priorities. Republicans are less likely to favor defense cuts and more likely to advocate reductions in environmental spending, for example. Democrats are more likely to favor new spending on roads and transportation and resist cuts to education.

The federal government fares the worst of the three levels of government in the public’s view, according to Pew data. Since 2002, the unfavorable rate for the federal government has risen from about 25 percent to 57 percent. At the state level, the unfavorable rate is 42 percent and for local governments only 32 percent. The biggest beef against the federal government is that it is “wasteful and inefficient” (70 percent agree this is a major problem), while only 46 percent agree with the assertion that government “interferes too much in people’s lives.”

Focusing on elected officials as opposed to agencies and workers, some three-fourths of respondents agree the government’s major problems include officials “not being careful with the government’s money, influenced by special interest money, care only about their own political careers, unwilling to work together and compromise, [and] out of touch with regular Americans.”

On regulation, a majority of 52 percent agree “regulation usually does more harm than good,” while only 40 percent believe regulation “is necessary to protect the public interest.” The sector the largest number believes is regulated too much is small business.

As for solutions to the fiscal crisis, “there’s actually a 50-50 divide among the American people” on whether reducing the deficit is more important than spending to help the economy recover, Dimock said. Reducing the deficit is an increasingly high priority among members of the public, if not as high as jobs creation.

But a clear majority, some 62 percent, say the solution lies in a combination of increasing taxes and cutting major programs. That contrasts with the political situation in Washington, which is deadlocked on that issue, Dimock noted.

Both in polls and in more extensive budget-cutting exercises in which researchers gauge public’s willingness to make tough trade-offs there is a surprising willingness to include tax increases in the solution -- even among some tea party activists, according to Dimock and other research specialists who belong to NAPA.

Entitlement programs are “overwhelmingly viewed as good for the country,” the data show, and clear majorities want to retain current benefits. The government, however, gets only a fair-to-poor rating by the majority (56 percent) on how the programs are run. Clear majorities agree the finances of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are troubled and need major overhauls.

On taxes, the public appears focused on the fairness issue. Only 14 percent seemed concerned with paying large amounts in taxes themselves, while 51 percent expressed a “feeling that some wealthy people get away with not paying their share.” (Some 28 percent were most concerned about the tax code’s complexity). In a startling change, in a Pew poll taken in December 2011, only 38 percent felt they were paying more than their fair share of taxes compared with 55 percent in 2000, before the enactment of the George W. Bush tax cuts.

Finally, a sizable group of Americans concur they themselves are part of the problem in the budget stalemate, with 56 agreeing “Americans aren’t willing to pay for things they want the government to do.”

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