February 10, 2011

Fewer Want Spending to Grow, But Most Cuts Remain Unpopular

Changing Views of Federal Spending

The public’s views about federal spending are beginning to change. Across a range of federal programs, Americans are no longer calling for increased spending, as they have for many years. For the most part, however, there is not a great deal of support for cutting spending, though in a few cases support for reductions has grown noticeably. The survey also shows that the public is reluctant to cut spending – or raise taxes – to balance state budgets.

Since June 2009, there have been double-digit declines in the proportions favoring increased federal spending for health care (by 20 percentage points), government assistance for the unemployed (17 points), Medicare (13 points) and veterans’ benefits and services (12 points). Fewer Americans also favor increased spending on military defense (down nine points) and environmental protection (seven points).

In two areas in particular – aid for the unemployed and national defense – the public’s attitudes toward federal spending have changed dramatically. Currently, as many favor decreasing spending as increasing spending for assistance to the unemployed and national defense. In 2009, far more supported funding increases than decreases for these programs.

Despite these changing views, however, majorities or pluralities favor increased spending in five of 18 areas. Fully 62% favor increased funding for education – the highest percentage for any program tested and little changed from 2009 (67%). In all, there is only one area – economic assistance to needy people around the world – for which a plurality favors cutting federal spending.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 2-7 among 1,385 adults, finds that President Obama’s overall job rating has ticked up: 49% approve of Obama’s job performance while 42% disapprove. From September through January, roughly as many approved as disapproved of Obama’s job performance.

Most Americans (56%) say President Obama could be doing more to improve economic conditions while 39% say he is doing as much as he can. A year ago, somewhat fewer (50%) said Obama could be doing more on the economy and in March 2009, just 30% expressed this view.

Still, views of former President Bush’s efforts to improve the economy at a comparable stage in his presidency were slightly more negative than they are for Obama today, though the economy was in much better shape. In January 2003, 61% said Bush could be doing more to improve economic conditions while 33% said he was doing all he could.

The survey finds somewhat more positive – or at least, less negative – views of the nation’s economy. Only about one-in-ten (12%) says economic conditions are excellent or good, a figure that has changed little over the past three years, but the proportion saying the economy is “poor” has edged lower. Currently 42% rate economic conditions as poor, which is virtually unchanged from December (45%), but down nine points from October (54%).

A plurality (42%) continues to say it will be a long time before the economy recovers, but that is 10 points lower than in September. The percentage saying the economy is recovering has more than doubled – from 10% to 24% – over this period.

Yet there has been no improvement in people’s assessments of their own finances. And while economists say that the recession has ended, more than a third (36%) say that the recession had a major effect on their finances and they have yet to recover.

Jobs remain the public’s dominant economic concern, but a new threat has emerged. The proportion citing rising prices as the national economic issue that most worries them has risen from 15% in December to 23% currently. Over the same period, the proportion citing the deficit as the most worrisome economic problem is flat (19% in December, 19% today).

As state budget problems worsen, most say that the states themselves should be responsible for addressing these problems, without the help of the federal government. Six-in-ten (60%) say the states should deal with budget shortfalls by raising taxes or cutting services, while just 27% favor the federal government giving more money to the states. These opinions are virtually unchanged from last June.

But there continues to be far more opposition than support for nearly all specific proposals to balance state budgets. Large majorities say their state should not decrease funding for primary and secondary education, health services, higher education, and road maintenance and public transportation. Most also oppose raising personal income and sales taxes, as well as taxes on business as ways to balance their state’s budget.

There is greater willingness to decrease funding for the pension plans of government employees. Even so, as many oppose this option as support it as a way to balance their state’s budget (47% each).

The survey finds little change in opinions about both political parties over the past few months. Currently, 47% have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party while 46% express an unfavorable view. For the GOP, 43% have a favorable opinion and slightly more (48%) have an unfavorable view.

The shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill has not changed the public’s view about the level of discord between the president and Congress. Fully 65% say Obama and GOP leaders are not working together on the important issues facing the country; an almost identical percentage (67%) expressed this view at the beginning of last year. As was the case a year ago, far more of those who say the two sides are not working together blame Republican leaders (31%) than the president (19%).

Cite this publication: “Fewer Want Spending to Grow, But Most Cuts Remain Unpopular.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 10, 2011) http://www.people-press.org/2011/02/10/fewer-want-spending-to-grow-but-most-cuts-remain-unpopular/, accessed on July 23, 2014.