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A Magazine of Ideas

Maybe Americans Really Are Ready for Spending Cuts

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

While some commentators despair of public receptivity to tough spending cuts, a review of the polls suggests the public is ready and willing to accept them. If only Washington would get on board.

The Washington Post recently featured an article titled “Four Pinocchios for the American Public on the Budget” that highlighted Americans’ “ignorance” on the federal budget. As evidence, the author, Glenn Kessler, pointed to a new study by Republican pollsters Ed Goeas and Nicholas Thompson, in which 63 percent of respondents believed the federal government spends more on defense and foreign aid than on Medicare and Social Security. In reality, the government spends much more on Medicare and Social Security. The Post article comes on the heels of a February Pew Research Center poll that revealed a disparity on public attitudes towards the budget deficit. In the abstract, people said the budget deficit is a severe problem requiring spending cuts. But when asked about specific programs, Americans’ enthusiasm for cuts evaporated.

The contradictions in recent polls have led numerous commentators to despair of American ignorance and the impossibility of realistically tackling the budget deficit in a way that would garner popular support. Bob Cesca of the Huffington Post, reacting to the Pew poll, challenged his readers to “show me a poll that indicates anything close to a plurality of support for these kinds of indiscriminate cuts.” His challenge is a good one because it cannot be met. No major pollster has shown support for the kind of broad cuts presented in the Pew poll. It is wrong, however, to point to itemized budget cut questions like Pew’s or public knowledge polls like Goeas and Thompson's and infer that the public would stubbornly oppose cutting any popular programs. I believe that recent polling indicates a remarkable consensus exists about the deficit that gives policy makers room to make difficult decisions.

Americans acknowledge that some pain on their part is going to be required.

In a mid-February column, Paul Krugman discussed the Pew results and the disparity between the public’s desire to reduce the deficit but not cut any actual programs. In the Pew poll, the only federal program a plurality was willing to cut was aid to the world’s needy. Krugman declared that “Republicans don’t have a mandate to cut spending, they have a mandate to repeal the laws of arithmetic.” But Krugman and others have missed a substantial change in attitudes occurring over the past year or two. Pew noted in their much-discussed survey that “public attitudes about government spending have changed substantially over the past two years. For 12 of the 13 issues where 2009 trends are available, either support for increased spending has fallen or support for spending cuts has grown (or both).” From 2009 to now, Pew’s polling has shown double-digit declines in those favoring increased federal spending on healthcare (20 points), government assistance for the unemployed (17 points), Medicare (13 points), and veteran’s benefits (12 points). Fewer Americans even favored increased spending on military defense (down 9 points) and environmental protection (7 points). While falling support for increased spending does not imply support for cuts by itself, the shift in attitudes is still remarkable. This swing in public opinion coincides with three conclusions Americans seemed to have reached about the budget deficit.

First, Americans view the deficit as an immediate problem that must be confronted. In the Pew poll, a narrow plurality said it was more important for the federal government to reduce the budget deficit than to spend to help the economy recover. This preference is particularly remarkable, considering that only 19 percent indicated the deficit is the economic issue worrying them most right now; 44 percent said the job situation worries them most. In other words, despite people’s current economic anxieties, they believe the deficit is a dire long-term issue that the government needs to address. And they want the government to do it now. In a January 2011 Kaiser/Harvard poll, 54 percent said Congress should act quickly to reduce the deficit.

When pollsters get more specific, the public is more receptive.

Second, Americans prefer cutting federal programs to raising taxes. In a January CBS News poll, 77 percent said they would prefer to cut spending to reduce the federal budget deficit. Only 9 percent said they would prefer to increase taxes. In a late February NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a narrow plurality favored cutting taxes—even when the question wording, somewhat leadingly, asked about “cutting important programs.” The NBC/WSJ pollsters also asked the question a second time after listing several proposals to cut federal programs. In the follow-up question, those favoring cutting programs rose slightly, while the percent favoring raising taxes fell by a small margin.

Third, Americans acknowledge that some pain on their part is going to be required. A plurality told CBS pollsters that in order to reduce the deficit, it would be necessary to cut programs that benefit people like them. In a separate CBS poll, 58 percent said they would be willing to reduce federal funding for projects in their community. In a January 2011 CBS/New York Times poll, 62 percent said they preferred “reducing spending on government programs that benefit people like you” to “raising taxes on people like you.”

Although Americans’ having inflated views of certain areas of spending might display ignorance, it might also indicate a receptiveness to reduced spending in these areas.

This consensus might even be broader than these polls imply. The Pew itemized question might produce more defensiveness and skepticism than concrete policy initiatives would. Pew only asks respondents if they would like to increase or decrease funding for large categories of programs, leaving respondents to guess the implications of decreased spending. When pollsters get more specific, however, the public is more receptive. NBC/WSJ’s late February poll asks whether it would be acceptable or unacceptable to “cut significantly” a number of programs. Unsurprisingly, very few volunteer cutting Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security as acceptable. But, in a separate question, respondents look much more favorably on specific initiatives regarding these programs. For example, majorities favored gradually raising the Social Security retirement age and reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthier retirees.

Polls showing Americans do not understand the true composition of the federal budget also provokes concern over public receptiveness to cuts. Bruce Bartlett in The Fiscal Times, after exploring how little Americans actually know about the federal budget, wonders if “there is any possible way of getting the political support for reducing the deficit and stabilizing the debt.” Such concerns need to be put in perspective. It is extremely difficult to conceptualize and keep a sense of proportion about spending figures in the billions of dollars. Although Americans’ having inflated views of certain areas of spending might display ignorance, it might also indicate a receptiveness to reduced spending in these areas. It’s no coincidence that Americans overestimate the share of the budget that defense spending comprises in the Goeas/Thompson poll and that Americans are also showing an unusual level of receptiveness to reducing defense spending in both the Pew and NBC/WSJ polls.

Any realistic solution to reducing the deficit requires cuts to government programs. Norm Ornstein acutely points out that “Americans like the bulk of the programs that actually make up government.” While some commentators like Kessler, Krugman, and Bartlett despair of public receptivity to tough cuts, a review of the polls suggests that the public is ready and willing to accept some bad-tasting medicine. If only Washington would get on board.

Andrew Rugg is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Rugg and Karlyn Bowman previously wrote “An Enduring Culture of Free Enterprise,” while Tim Kane outlines “The Way to Cut Taxes and Deficits.” Andrew Biggs makes “The Case against Raising the Social Security Tax Max,” Jonah Goldberg criticizes “Dems' Dull Budget Scissors,” and Arthur Brooks explains “The Unhappy Paradox of Santa-Statism.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.