To date, media coverage of the public’s worries over deficit spending has focused on the lack of consensus for how to deal with the nation’s $14 trillion-plus national debt. Analysts and commentators often observe that survey respondents simultaneously call for spending cuts but support maintaining current levels of Medicare, Social Security, and other large-ticket items. Yet, it is not surprising that when survey questions fail to provide realistic immediate trade-offs to survey respondents their answers may lack consistency or feasibility. Typically, pollsters do not follow up with the sorts of inquiries that would clarify the apparent confusion.
The first Reason-Rupe quarterly poll underscores that although the public is divided about how to tackle the national debt, 96% agree that reducing it is important. Moreover, 69% believe reducing the national debt is very important.
This finding is consistent across all demographic groups, party identification, age, income, education, gender, religious activity, and employment status. Significant differences do emerge among political groups answering that reducing the debt is “very important”. With 85% of Tea Party supporters and 80% of non-Tea Party Republicans believing reducing the national debt is very important compared to 59% of Democrats and 60% of Independents. (Non-Tea Party Republicans and nonTP GOP refer to respondents who self-identified as Republicans but were not Tea Party supporters. Tea Party supporters were defined as respondents who said they were very favorable toward the Tea Party.) Despite these differences, solid majorities agree that the debt is a problem.
Note: Tea Party supporters reported they were “very favorable” to the Tea Party movement. nonTP GOP self-identified as Republican who are not Tea Party supporters. Independents only include Independents who did not lean Republican or Democratic. Democrats self-identified as such.
These findings are notable because it reminds policy makers that even though the public may be divided about how to handle the national debt, they emphatically agree that it should be addressed.
In terms of strategy to reduce the debt, the Reason-Rupe poll shows a clear majority (74%) of Americans favor a government-spending cap. This does not directly address reducing the debt, but it does mean slowing its rate of growth. Republicans (84%) and Independents (81%) are significantly more likely to want a spending cap than Democrats (64%), though a strong majority of all favored the limit. (The opposition to a spending cap may be the result of a preference for using increased government spending during a recession in efforts to stimulate the economy. A spending cap would make this difficult.)
When given the trade-off between reducing spending and raising taxes, the largest response (45%) was to reduce spending while maintaining current taxation levels. Another 16% of respondents wanted to primarily reduce spending along with some increase in taxes, bringing the total of those wanting to focus on lowering spending to 61%. Of the remaining respondents, 14% wanted equal emphasis on both increasing taxes and reducing spending, 8% wanted to primarily increase taxes with some reduction in spending, 4% wanted to increase taxes while maintaining current spending, and 11% said they did not have an opinion.
Another way to cut this data is to note that 45% wanted to decrease spending with no increase in taxes and 42% were comfortable with some increase in taxes. It remains unclear to what extent these individuals would tolerate higher taxes, or if they assume that those making over $250,000 a year would be the only group paying higher taxes.
The preference for reducing spending while maintaining existing tax levels varies by political views: 63% of Tea Party supporters, 52% of Republicans, 46% of Independents, and 35% of Democrats want to reduce spending with no increase in taxes. Preferences also substantially vary by age. Fifty-four percent of those between 45-54 years of age wanted to reduce spending and oppose tax increases; for people between 18-29, the figure is 35% Most income groups hovered around 45% but nearly 60% of those making over $200,000 a year wanted spending cuts with no tax increases. This is understandable given President Obama’s calls for tax increases on only those making over $250,000 a year.
In an effort to learn what government programs respondents want to cut the Reason-Rupe poll used an open-ended question asking survey respondents to state in a few words what if any programs the government should spend less on. Results were inconclusive, though the plurality response (22%) called for less spending on the military. Entitlements were mentioned by 5% of respondents and “everything” by another 5%.
These findings present a quandary to the plethora of other polls showing opposition to cutting Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid (More polls found here). In particular, a recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that 78% opposed cutting Medicare spending, 69% opposed cutting Medicaid spending, and 56% opposed cutting military spending (these three items comprise the largest portions of the federal budget). While Americans seem reluctant to want to cut spending for programs they like, when asked about the trade-off between raising taxes and reducing spending, 45% would rather reduce spending than raise taxes to pay for these programs. Of the 42% who would support some tax increases, it is unclear to what extent they would tolerate higher taxes themselves or if they assume these taxes would be paid by Americans making over $250,000 a year. The Washington Post/ABC poll found taxing households making over $250,000 a popular remedy with 72% supporting. Then again, it is not entirely surprising that individuals who want lower spending, lower taxes, and more services would prefer others to pay. However, given that raising taxes on the upper income deciles is not enough to solve budget deficits and the national debt, it remains unclear what the public believes should be done. Ultimately, the answer relies on how individuals make trade-offs when confronted with the costs, and whether they opt for paying higher taxes themselves, having other people pay higher taxes, reducing spending on programs they like, or some combination of all three. We intend to explore these questions in future polls.
Los Angeles (May 3, 2011) — As the federal government rapidly approaches the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, 96 percent of Americans say it is important to reduce the national debt, according to a new Reason Foundation-Rupe poll. Of those surveyed, 69 percent believe reducing the national debt is “very important.”
With the debt piling up, it is also clear that taxpayers do not trust the federal government to live within its means. In fact, the Reason-Rupe survey finds 74 percent of Americans support implementing a spending cap that would prohibit the government from spending more money than it takes in during a fiscal year. Only 19 percent oppose a government spending cap.
The most popular policy prescription for reducing the national debt is spending cuts: 45 percent of people say Congress should bring down the debt by reducing spending without raising taxes. Another 16 percent favor reducing the debt primarily through spending cuts, but are open to some tax increases; 14 percent prefer an equal emphasis on spending cuts and tax increases; 8 percent want to reduce the debt primarily through higher taxes with some spending cuts; 4 percent say current spending levels should be maintained and taxes should be raised as needed; and 1 percent of Americans say we shouldn’t do anything about the debt.
Open-Ended Questions on the Economy and Spending
The Reason-Rupe poll included several open-ended questions that allowed respondents to voice concerns and share their own ideas. When asked to name the biggest problem facing America today, 30 percent say the economy, 23 percent emphasize jobs and unemployment, and 10 percent cite government spending, debts and deficits.
When given the opportunity to name any government program they’d like to spend less money on 22 percent of Americans suggest cutting military and defense spending. Welfare (10 percent) and foreign aid (10 percent) were the other most-named cuts. When asked, open-ended, what the government should spend more money on, 39 percent say education, 16 percent focus on helping the poor and needy, and 13 percent single out health care.
2012 Presidential Election
With the 2012 election season ramping up, frustrated voters appear ready to look beyond Democratic and Republican candidates. Eighty percent say they will or may consider voting for a third-party or independent presidential candidate in 2012. And an even higher number of independents (89 percent) and GOP voters (86 percent) say they will or may consider candidates outside of the two major political parties.
The willingness to look beyond Democrats and Republicans stems, in part, from voters’ lack of trust in them. When asked which political party they trust to govern responsibly, the leading answer was “neither,” at 35 percent, followed by Democrats at 31 percent and Republicans at 23 percent. The survey also found 58 percent of voters believe they’d either see “no difference” or be “better off” if Congress were only in session every other year.
Having recently filed their federal income taxes, 56 percent of Americans support replacing the current complicated tax system with a flat tax. Forty-four percent also favor, and 36 percent oppose, giving up the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks if it results in a simpler system with lower overall tax rates. One tax change that respondents are against is a national sales tax. Just 33 percent of Americans support replacing federal income taxes with a national sales tax.
When asked about the amount of federal, state, local and property taxes they pay, 51 percent of Americans say they pay too much in taxes, 41 percent believe they pay about the right amount and 4 percent think they pay too little.
Public Sector Benefits and Pensions
Half of all respondents say that public sector workers receive better benefits that those with similar jobs in the private sector, but only 37 percent support cutting those public employee benefits to help balance state budgets.
Drug Legalization and Medical Marijuana
Forty-one percent of the country supports legalizing small quantities of marijuana for personal use, while 44 percent opposes legalization. And in the wake of federal raids on medical cannabis dispensaries in states where medical marijuana has already been legalized, 69 percent of Americans say each state should be allowed to regulate medical marijuana use within its borders.
Full Poll Online
The full Reason-Rupe survey is available here. This Reason-Rupe poll surveyed a random, national sample of 1,200 adults by telephone (859 on landlines, 341 on cell phones) from March 24 to April 9, 2011. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The poll was conducted for Reason Foundation by NSON Opinion Strategy.
This is the first in a series of Reason-Rupe public opinion surveys dedicated to exploring what Americans really think about government and major issues. This Reason Foundation project is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation.
We will be publishing further in-depth analysis of the results in the coming weeks, as well as additional underlying data. We invite your feedback and discussion of the survey and its results.
See Reason.tv's video on the poll: