Only a fifth of Americans currently trust the federal government or think it is well run, a new low, according to a major new poll released on Monday. As many as 55 percent said that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job than the government at solving national problems, the Pew Research Center found by interviewing 6,000 respondents from Aug. 27-Oct. 4.
“A year ahead of the presidential election, the American public is deeply cynical about government, politics and the nation’s elected leaders in a way that has become quite familiar,” the analysts wrote in the first such poll on government performance since 2010. The public is critical of how the government handles issues of immigration and poverty. But Americans also favor and approve of the government’s role in addressing issues ranging from terrorism and disaster response to education and the environment.
Asked whether they had a favorable view of individual federal agencies, respondents in the highest numbers approved, in rank order, of the Postal Service (84 percent), the National Park Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA and the FBI.
Least favored agencies, from the bottom up, were the Veterans Affairs Department (39 percent), the Internal Revenue Service, the Education Department, the Justice Department and the Food and Drug Administration.
The scandal-troubled VA has fallen in polling by 29 favorability percentage points since 2013, Pew reported. Agencies might take heart in the comparatively lower favorability ratings of the Supreme Court (50 percent) and Congress (27 percent). And the share of respondents who say they would like their children to pursue a career in government, while down 8 points since 2010, is still higher than those who would want that child to go into politics (33 percent). A worsening partisan divide emerges on the career question—58 percent of Democrats say they would like to see a child work in government, compared with just 38 percent of Republicans or Republican-leaning respondents.
The IRS’s low favorability, while not surprising, has partisan undertones as well, with more than twice as many Democrats (58 percent) as Republicans (24 percent) voicing a favorable opinion of the tax agency.
For 10 of 13 areas tested in the survey, half or more say the federal government is doing a very good or somewhat good job, Pew reported. Large majorities say the government is doing a very or somewhat good job responding to natural disasters (79 percent), setting fair and safe standards for workplaces (76 percent), keeping the country safe from terrorism (72 percent) and ensuring that food and medicine are safe (72 percent). More say the federal government is doing a good rather than a bad job protecting the environment (59 percent vs. 38 percent), ensuring access to health care (56 percent vs. 40 percent), maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure (52 percent vs. 46 percent) and ensuring access to high quality education (52 percent vs. 44 percent).
On the economy, the public appears evenly divided. Slightly more say the federal government is doing a good (51 percent) than a bad (47 percent) job strengthening the economy. But “more emphatic ratings of government performance tilt negative,” Pew said. A significant 22 percent say the federal government is doing a very bad job strengthening the economy, compared with just 9 percent who say they are doing a very good job.” Most Democrats and those who lean Democratic say the federal government is doing a good job strengthening the economy (68 percent),” the analysts wrote, “but just 34 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican agree.
The partisan differences also show up on the ratings for combatting terrorism; among Democrats and Democratic leaners, 85 percent say the government is doing a good job keeping the country safe from terrorism, compared with a smaller 60 percent majority of Republicans and Republican leaners, Pew said.