An Annoying Poll


November 13, 2015

CQ News recently cited a poll about the budget deal enacted by Congress, in which 61 percent agree “lawmakers should have stuck to lower spending levels,” and 39 percent agree that “the deal is a positive move forward.”  We at the Coalition on Human Needs supported the deal, which will make it possible to stop cuts and make modest investments in many human needs programs.  We don’t want members of Congress to get the idea that the public opposes these increases. So I took a harder look at the poll (by The Economist Group/YouGov, conducted November 5-9 of 2,000 respondents; CQ-Roll Call is part of The Economist Group).
Here is specific language in the poll about the budget agreement:

A two-year, bipartisan budget deal recently was signed into law by the president that would increase spending by $80 billion for both defense and nondefense programs.  The deal was financed through a combination of methods including raising employer fees on pensions, selling off part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and shifting funds among Social Security accounts.  The move means there’s less chance of a government shutdown.  Do you approve or disapprove of the budget deal? 

After this description, 33 percent said they approved of the deal strongly or somewhat; 39 percent disapproved strongly or somewhat, and 29 percent were not sure.  (“Not sure” wouldn’t be a bad answer, since in a previous question, 50 percent said they had heard “a little” about the budget agreement, and 36 percent said they had “heard nothing at all,” making the little or nothing contingent a whopping but unsurprising 86 percent.)  A couple of questions later, a stronger majority agree that lawmakers should have stuck to lower spending levels.

This is an annoying poll, for a number of reasons.  For one thing, it’s just wrong in saying that the $80 billion in increased spending comes in part from shifting funds among Social Security accounts.  That erroneous claim alone would send people into the disapproving camp.  (Just so you know:  the legislation including the budget deal included a separate transfer from Social Security’s Old Age Security Insurance fund to its Social Security Disability fund, to keep the latter program solvent through 2022.  That transfer had nothing to do with the increased funding for defense and domestic programs.)

And look – when polls ask people how they feel about government spending generally, they tend to be critical.  People know what defense is, but you would have a hard time finding a less informative label than “nondefense programs.”  When asked about specific programs, support rises substantially.  In 2013, when the new sequestration cuts were about to kick in, Pew Research found that 89 percent either wanted to increase spending or keep it the same for education, 83 percent for food and drug inspection, 81 percent for roads and infrastructure, 76 percent for environmental protection, 72 percent for health care, and 71 percent for aid to the needy in the U.S.  Those who wanted to cut were pretty overwhelmingly outnumbered.

Support for specific programs is seen in more recent polls, too.  For example, a Democracy Corps poll (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner) from September 12-15, 2015 asked whether aspects of a hypothetical plan would be effective in producing a better economy.  For example:

  • ♦ 88% thought that making major government investments in rebuilding American roads, bridges, and schools, creating good jobs in the process, would be somewhat or very effective in producing a better economy.
    ♦ 79% thought having government expand early childhood education and childcare subsidies so it is easier for parents to work full-time and contribute to the labor force would be somewhat or very effective in producing a better economy.
  • ♦ 71% thought the following would be somewhat or very effective at boosting the economy:  “Because communities of color face problems from an early age that limit their opportunities, we should target investment in education, infrastructure, housing and transportation so they get job opportunities and build personal wealth.”

The Economist/YouGov poll does show that when people are suspicious of the ways a deal pays for unspecified increased spending, they won’t like the deal.  That isn’t altogether surprising.

But when people agree with the fairness of the source of revenues, it makes them MORE likely to approve of spending initiatives.  Amazingly so, really.  Take a look at this, from a Hart Research poll conducted this year for a number of organizations including labor unions and others (if we can get a link to this poll, we’ll post it later):

Poll Image 11 13 15

Nothing changes except the addition of the statement about a source of revenues to pay for the investments.  That shifts support towards an investment agenda from 50-50 to 62% favoring.

So, we should unhesitatingly reassure our champions in Congress (and ourselves) that a vote for increased expenditures is popular if the public knows it’s for important programs, and a lot more popular if it’s paid for fairly and responsibly.

Budget and Appropriations