Released: April 18, 2010
Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor
The People and Their Government
Section 5: Views of Federal Departments and Agencies
Favorable ratings for most federal agencies and departments tested, in this study have declined substantially since the late 1990s. And job performance ratings for most federal agencies are lackluster: Of 15 agencies included in the survey, majorities give positive job performance ratings to only six.
Nonetheless, most Americans (70%) think that the government is a good place to work, and 56% say if they had a son or daughter getting out of school they would like to see him or her pursue a career in government. In contrast, just 36% say they would like their child to pursue a career in politics, while 55% would not.
Declining Favorability for Agencies
Favorable opinions have declined significantly for seven of 13 federal agencies included in the current survey and in the study of attitudes about government conducted in 1997-1998. The most striking shift since then has occurred in views of the Department of Education.
Currently, 40% have a favorable opinion of the Department of Education while 53% have an unfavorable view. In October 1997, favorable views of the Education Department outnumbered unfavorable ones by a wide margin (61% to 37%).
Favorable ratings for a number of other agencies have fallen by double digits since 1997/1998: the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA (by 17 points), the Social Security Administration (13 points), the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA (12 points), the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, NASA (12 points), and the Centers for Disease Control, the CDC (also 12 points).
Opinions of the Defense Department also are somewhat less positive than in October 1997, although they remain highly favorable (76% then, 67% today). As was the case 13 years ago, the Postal Service receives the highest favorable ratings of the agencies included in the survey: 83% now have a favorable opinion of the Postal Service, compared with 89% in October 1997.
Views of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI (currently 67% favorable), Veterans Administration, the VA (57%), the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA (52%), and the Justice Department (51%) are little changed from 1997/1998. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service (the IRS) is viewed slightly more favorably than it was 13 years ago. Currently, 47% say they have a favorable impression of the IRS, up from 38% in 1997. The current measure is about the same as the percentage expressing a favorable opinion of the IRS in an August 1987 survey by the Roper Org. (49%).
While opinions of some federal agencies have become more negative since the late 1990s, favorable opinions of Congress have plummeted. Currently, just 26% express a favorable view of Congress, down from 53% in October 1997 and 64% a decade earlier (January 1988).
Less Positive Views of Education Department
Favorable opinions of the Department of Education have fallen across the political and demographic spectrum. In October 1997, 65% of women and 57% of men said they had a favorable impression of the department; today, only about four-in-ten women (39%) and men (40%) feel favorably toward the Department of Education.
Fewer than half of Democrats (46%), Republicans (40%) and independents (37%) express a favorable opinion of the Education Department; in 1997, 71% of Democrats had a positive view as did 59% of independents and 54% of Republicans.
Social Security Administration Seen Less Favorably
In October 1997, 64% of Democrats and the same percentage of Republicans said they had a favorable opinion of the Social Security Administration. There has been no change in the percentage of Democrats who view the Social Security Administration positively, but favorable opinions among Republicans have fallen 18 points since then, to 46%. There has been a comparable decline in positive opinions among independents (from 59% favorable then to 43% today).
People ages 65 and older express much more favorable opinions of the Social Security Administration than do those in younger age groups. However, the proportion of seniors expressing positive opinions of the Social Security Administration have declined by 17 points since October 1997 – from 86% to 69%. The decline has been as large among the 50 to 64 age group; currently, only about half (51%) of those 50 to 64 have a favorable impression of the Social Security Administration.
The public makes major distinctions as to how well various federal departments and agencies do their jobs. Fully 80% of the public says the military does an excellent (39%) or good (41%), while 70% say the same about the Postal Service.
Clear majorities also give excellent or good job ratings to the CDC (62%), the Defense Department (60%), NASA (57%) and the FBI (58%). By contrast, opinions of the job performance of other agencies are less positive – including the CIA (46% excellent/good), EPA (43%), FDA (43%), Department of Homeland Security (43%) and Veterans Administration (41%).
Notably, just a third (33%) says the Department of Education does an excellent (5%) or good job (28%); 64% say the department does only fair (35%) or poor (29%). Positive job ratings also are relatively low for the Social Security Administration (36% excellent/good), Justice Department (38%) and IRS (40%).
Four-in-ten say that the Obama administration does an excellent (10%) or good (30%) job; a majority (58%) says it does only fair or poor. The administration’s job rating is lower than Barack Obama’s job approval rating (48% approval). More than twice as many people give the Obama administration positive job marks as rate the job performance of Congress positively; just 17% say Congress is doing an excellent (2%) or good job (15%) while 80% say it has done only fair (40%) or poor (40%).
Views of Agencies among the Angry
As expected, those who express negative opinions about the federal government generally – those who say they are frustrated (56% of public) or angry (21%) with government – give federal agencies less positive job ratings than do those who say they are basically content with the federal government (19%).
Still, the opinions of agencies among those who are frustrated and angry are not uniformly negative. Among those who say they are frustrated with government, majorities give positive job ratings to six agencies or institutions: the military (81% excellent/good), the Postal Service (71%), the CDC (64%), the Defense Department (62%), the FBI (59%), and NASA (57%).
Even among those who say they are angry with the federal government, majorities give positive ratings to four agencies or institutions (the military, Postal Service, NASA and Defense Department), while half (50%) give the CDC excellent or good ratings and about as many (49%) say the same about the FBI.
Those who are frustrated with government give the lowest job ratings to the Department of Education (32%), the Social Security Administration (35%) and the Justice Department (37%). Among those who are angry with government, just 18% say the Department of Education is doing an excellent or good job, while 21% give positive ratings to the Justice Department and 23% say the same about Social Security and the IRS.
Majorities of those who say they are basically content with the federal government give positive job ratings to 12 of 15 federal agencies or institutions included on the survey. Those who feel content with government give mixed job ratings to both the Department of Education (49% excellent/good, 49% only fair/poor) and the Social Security Administration (50%, 48%). Fewer than four-in-ten (37%) of those who are content with government give positive job ratings to the Veterans Administration while 47% say that agency does only fair or poor.
Fully seven-in-ten (70%) of those who say they are content with government say the Obama administration has done an excellent or good job; that compares with 37% of those who are frustrated with government and 19% of those who are angry with government. But fewer than half (41%) of those who are basically content with government give Congress positive job ratings; Congress’ ratings are considerably lower among those who are frustrated (13%) and angry (4%) with government.
Partisan Differences Over Agencies’ Performance
The partisan differences in job ratings for federal agencies are modest in comparison with the enormous divide in views of the Obama administration. More Democrats than Republicans give positive marks to the EPA (by 15 points), Social Security (14 points) and the Postal Service (13 points).
By contrast, the military, the Defense Department, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security all get higher marks from Republicans than Democrats.
Just 12% of Republicans say the Obama administration has done an excellent or good job. That compares with 34% of independents and 68% of Democrats. Congress gets low job performance ratings across the board: just 10% of Republicans, 14% of independents and 24% of Democrats say Congress has done an excellent or good job.
Government as a Career
A sizeable majority of Americans (70%) think that the government is a good place to work, and more than half (56%) say that if they had a son or daughter finishing school they would like to see them pursue a career in government. Fewer say that they would like to see their children go into politics (36%); nonetheless, perhaps as a consequence of the weak economy, the proportions who would recommend careers in both government and politics have both increased over the last decade.
The proportion expressing a positive view of their child having a career in government is up 13 points (from 43%) in a May 2000 NPR/Kaiser/Harvard survey. And compared with the previous Pew Research survey on attitudes toward government in 1997, more also say they would like to see a child pursue politics as a career (from 27% to 36%).
Government Critics See It as Good Place to Work
Majorities across all major demographic and political groups say that government is a good place to work. And 72% of those who feel frustrated with the federal government think that the government is a good place to work, while just 21% do not. Even among those who are angry with the federal government, 55% say the government is a good place to work while 39% say it is not.
Those who say they agree with the Tea Party movement generally also see government as a good place to work. More than six-in-ten (64%) of those who agree with the Tea Party movement have a positive view of government employment, as do 82% of those who disagree with the Tea Party.
As was the case in 1997, people who see the government as a good place to work most often cite the benefits as the main reason why; 30% cite the benefits, while 21% cite job security, 20% cite the pay, 18% say the work is challenging while 7% say the hours are good. These views vary little across political and demographic groups.
There is a similar pattern in opinions about whether people would like to see their child pursue a career in government. More Democrats (65%) than Republicans or independents (52% each) say they would welcome their child having a career in government.
Majorities of those who are basically content (71%) and frustrated (57%) with the federal government say they would like their child to have a career in government. But just 40% of those angry with the federal government agree; 51% in this group say that if they had a son or daughter finishing school, they would not like to see him or her pursue a career in government.
Careers in Politics
Since 1997, there has been a modest rise in the percentage saying that if they had a son or daughter just getting out of school, they would like to seem them pursue a career in politics (from 27% to 36%). Still, most people (55%) would not view politics as a good career choice for a young person.
People younger than 30 – as well as those ages 50 to 64 – have more positive views of a career in politics than they did in 1997. Currently 45% of those younger than 30 say if they had a son or daughter they would like to see them go into politics, up from 29% in 1997; nearly four-in-ten (37%) of those 50 to 64 express this view, compared with just 22% in 1997. Independents also are more likely to view a career in politics more positively than they did in 1997. Currently, 36% of independents say they would like to see their child pursue a political career, nearly double the percentage in 1997 (19%).