Public Opinion on the Debt, Spending, and Taxes

Reason-Rupe Survey findings in more detail.


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.