Cutting Government Spending May Be Popular But There Is Little Appetite For Cutting Specific Government Programs

NEW YORK , N.Y. – February 16, 2011 – Cutting government spending often sounds like a good idea to many people, and it is a popular rallying cry for many Republicans and Conservatives, but a new Harris Poll underlines how difficult it is. When shown a list of 20 areas of federal government spending, a majority of the public supports cutting only six of them and these do not include the big ticket items that comprise most of the federal budget. Furthermore large majorities oppose cutting Social Security or federal health care programs, which many economists believe are increasing at unsustainable rates.

One other interesting finding that may be noted by advocates on both sides of this debate: far fewer people support cuts in these 20 programs today than did so in 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,566 adults surveyed online between January 17 and 24, 2011 byHarris Interactive.

Majorities of the pubic support some cuts in government spending, specifically:

  • Foreign aid tops the list of programs that most people would like to see cut – foreign economic aid by 75% to 16%, and foreign military aid by 69% to 20%. (It is important to note, however, that other research in the past has shown that most people greatly overestimate the small percentage of the budget that is actually spent on foreign aid);

· The four other types of spending that majorities would like to cut are spending by regulatory agencies (by 56% to 28%) space programs (by 54% to 37%) subsidies to business (by 51% to 37%), and federal welfare spending (by 51% to 40%).

However, large majorities oppose cutting some of the biggest government programs including:

  • Social Security payments (by 80% to 11%);
  • Federal aid to education (by 71% to 21%); and
  • Health care (by 67% to 24%).

Furthermore, majorities of the public also oppose cutting seven other areas: revenue sharing with states (by 55% to 28%) Federal highway spending (by 59% to 31%) Federal jobs programs (by 56% to 33%) Federal aid to cities (by 55% to 34%), spending for mass transportation (by 54% to 35%) pollution control (by 54% to 37%), and the food stamp program (by 51% to 40%).

Pluralities oppose cutting spending on the other four areas in the list: housing programs (by 49% to 41%) defense (by 49% to 41%) farm subsidies (by 47% to 42%) and scientific research programs (by 48% to 42%).

 

In 1980 things were different

When these identical questions were asked in a Harris Poll in 1980, when President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, the results were very different. Many more people wanted to cut all of these areas of government spending than do so today. Indeed majorities of the public favored cutting 14 of these 20 types of government spending, compared to only 6 in this new poll.

Those who favor cuts are now more than 20 points lower than they were in 1980 for five areas: revenue sharingwith states (from 53% to 28%) highways (from 59% to 31%) federal jobs programs (from 57% to 33%) federal aid to cities (from 58% to 34%) and the food stamp program (from 65% to 40%).

So What?

These results prompt two thoughts. The first is that the big picture – cutting government spending, in general – looks very different than the more detailed picture – cutting specific programs. Many people seem to want to cut down the forest but to keep the trees. The second is that this is not 1980, when President Reagan came to power. At that time there was a much greater appetite for cutting many government programs than there is today. Furthermore it should be noted that, in spite of his rhetoric, Ronald Reagan had great difficulty cutting government spending.

TABLE 1

CUTTING GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS

Below is a list of different areas of federal government spending. For each, please indicate if you would favor a major cut in spending, a minor cut, no cut at all, or would you increase spending in this area?

Base: All Adults

FAVOR

CUT

(NET)

Major

cut

Minor

cut

OPPOSE

CUT

(NET)

No cut in

Spending

Increase in spending

Not at

all

sure

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Foreign economic aid

75

47

28

16

11

4

9

Foreign military aid

69

40

29

20

15

5

11

Spending by the regulatory

agencies generally

56

23

32

28

22

6

16

Space programs

54

24

30

37

26

11

9

Subsidies to business

51

21

30

37

26

10

12

Federal welfare spending

51

26

24

40

30

10

9

Federally funded scientific research programs

42

14

28

48

31

17

10

Farm subsidies

42

19

23

47

34

13

11

Defense spending

41

15

26

49

34

16

10

Federal housing programs

41

17

24

49

35

14

10

The food stamp program

40

17

24

51

38

13

9

Pollution control

37

15

21

54

36

17

10

Spending for mass transportation

35

12

23

54

32

22

11

Federal aid to cities

34

11

23

55

39

16

11

Federal jobs programs

33

14

19

56

34

22

11

Federal highway financing

31

7

24

59

41

18

10

Revenue sharing with states and cities

28

9

19

55

41

15

16

Health care

24

12

12

67

33

35

9

Federal aid to education

21

8

13

71

32

39

8

Social security payments

11

4

8

80

43

36

9

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.

 

TABLE 2

CUTTING SPECIFIC GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS – TREND

Below is a list of different areas of federal government spending. For each, please indicate if you would favor a major cut in spending, a minor cut, no cut at all, or would you increase spending in this area?

Summary of those saying favor a major cut or favor a minor cut

Base: All Adults

Favor Cut (NET)

Change 1980-2011

1980

2008

2011

%

%

%

%

Foreign economic aid

82

74

75

-7

Foreign military aid

77

69

69

-8

Spending by the regulatory agencies generally

72

53

56

-16

Space programs

66

49

54

-12

Subsidies to business

69

62

51

-18

Federal welfare spending

69

52

51

-18

Federally funded scientific research programs

51

35

42

-9

Farm subsidies

53

44

42

-11

Defense spending

34

35

41

7

Federal housing programs

54

39

41

-13

The food stamp program

65

43

40

-25

Pollution control

49

22

37

-12

Spending for mass transportation

42

28

35

-7

Federal aid to cities

58

33

34

-24

Federal jobs programs

57

34

33

-24

Federal highway financing

59

24

31

-28

Revenue sharing with states and cities

53

30

28

-25

Health care

37

12

24

-13

Federal aid to education

37

17

21

-16

Social security payments

23

8

11

-12

Note: Please note that in in 1980, this survey was conducted by telephone

Methodology

This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between January 17 to 24, 2011 among 2,566 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of Harris Interactive.

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Q805

The Harris Poll ® #21, February 16, 2011

By Humphrey Taylor, Chairman, The Harris Poll

About Harris Interactive

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