March 1, 2018

The Generation Gap in American Politics

2. Views of scope of government, trust in government, economic inequality

Over the last several decades a clear generational divide has been evident in views of government, with those in younger generations more likely than those in older generations to express a preference for a bigger government with more services.

There also are generational differences in views of the government safety net; Millennials and Gen Xers are more likely than Boomers or Silents to say the government should do more for the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt. And Millennials are more likely than older generations to say it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage.

However, trust in government is low across younger and older age cohorts. And majorities across generations say they are frustrated – rather than angry or content – with the federal government.

Roughly half of Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials say that economic inequality in the United States is a “very big” problem. Silents are less likely to hold this view.

Most Millennials prefer ‘bigger government’

As has been the case for a decade, Millennials have a decided preference for a bigger government providing more services: 57% say this, while 37% say they would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services.

Members of Generation X also continue to be more likely than Boomers or Silents to prefer a bigger government: Half of Gen Xers (50%) say they would rather have a bigger government. Just 43% of Baby Boomers and 30% of those in the Silent Generation say the same.

For nearly three decades, majorities of Boomers and Silents have expressed a preference for a smaller government providing fewer services.

Among the public overall, nonwhites are more likely than whites to favor a bigger government providing more extensive services (65% vs. 39%). There are racial differences across generations on this question, including among Millennials; nonwhite Millennials are nearly 20 percentage points more likely than white Millennials to prefer bigger government (67% vs. 48%).

However, white Millennials are more supportive of bigger government than are older whites. In fact, while white Millennials are divided, with about as many favoring a bigger government (48%) as a smaller government (43%), majorities of whites in older age cohorts say they prefer a smaller government with fewer services.

There is broad consensus among the public – and across generational lines – that the federal government provides too much help for wealthy people, and not enough for poor people. But while majorities in each cohort say the federal government does not do enough for older people, there are wider differences in views of government help for younger people. A majority of Millennials (57%) say the government does not do enough for younger people; half of Gen Xers (53%) said the same. By contrast, about half of Boomers (48%) and just 37% of Silents say the government does too little for younger people.

Views of government role on health care, aid to needy

While about half or more across generations think the federal government has the responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage, support for a federal government role in ensuring health care coverage is higher among Millennials than older generations.

Last July, 60% of the public overall said the government was responsible for providing health care coverage for all Americans – the highest share expressing this view in nearly a decade.

Two-thirds of Millennials say the government has the responsibility to ensure health coverage for all, more than any other generational cohort.

In a separate survey in December, majorities of both Millennials (63%) and Gen Xers (57%) approved of the 2010 health care law. About half of Silents also approved of the Affordable Care Act, while Boomers were roughly divided: 46% of Boomers approved, while 49% disapproved.

There also are generational differences in attitudes about government benefits for the poor and needy. Among Millennials and Gen Xers, majorities say the government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt (56% of Millennials, 53% of Gen Xers). Just 40% in each group say the government can’t afford to do much more to help the needy.

Boomers are divided: 48% say the government should do more to help the needy, while 45% say it cannot afford to do this. Among Silents, 40% favor increased aid for the needy even if it increases the debt, while 53% say the government can’t afford to do much more to help the needy.

Similarly, majorities of Millennials and Gen Xers say “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.” Just about a third in each cohort (36% each) say poor people have it easy because “they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

Those in the Silent Generation are more divided over the hardships of the poor. While 43% say they have hard lives, about as many (45%) say they have it easy because they get government benefits without doing anything in return.

Trust in government is low across age cohorts

Public trust in the federal government has changed little in recent years. Just 18% of Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right just about always or most of the time. Two-thirds of Americans say they can trust the government only some of the time, while 14% volunteer they can never trust the federal government.

These attitudes vary little across generational groups. Just 15% of Millennials – and comparable shares in older age cohorts – said they trust the government just about always or most of the time.

Historically, there have been modest generational differences in trust: Younger adults tend to be slightly more likely than older people to express trust in the government. At a young age, in the early 1990s, members of Generation X were somewhat more likely than Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation to say they could trust the government at least most of the time. A similar pattern can be seen among Boomers, compared with Silents, in the 1970s and 1980s when they were young.

See the accompanying interactive for long-term trends on public trust in government, including among generations and partisan groups.

Economic inequality and the social safety net

There are only modest differences across generational lines in views of the fairness of the U.S. economy and whether economic inequality is a problem.

Overall, 62% of the public says the economic system in this country unfairly favors powerful interests; about half as many (34%) say the system is generally fair to most Americans.

Nearly two-thirds of Millennials (66%) and Gen Xers (65%) say the system unfairly favors powerful interests; six-in-ten Boomers say the same. By comparison, members of the Silent Generation are more divided on the fairness of the economic system: While 50% say it unfairly favors the powerful, 45% say it is generally fair to most.

Similarly, wide shares of the generational cohorts with the exception of Silents say that economic inequality is at least a moderately big problem in this country, with at least half who say it is a very big problem. While three-quarters of Silents do say economic inequality is a problem in the country, the share that says it’s a very big problem is smaller among the oldest generation (37%).