Americans Don’t Really Want to Cut Goverment Spending

…public support for serious fiscal austerity is nowhere in sight—and simply talking up the economic peril posed by budget deficits does not seem likely to produce it.

So concludes Larry Bartels over at Model Politics. His conclusion is based on the results of two surveys.

In the first survey, respondents were asked whether they wanted to spend more, less, or the same on 8 different policy areas. They were reminded that “if you say ‘much more,’ it might require a tax increase to pay for it.”

In the second survey, respondents were asked the same spending questions, except they first read a prologue that emphasized a “deficit hawk” message:

As you probably know, the government in Washington is currently spending much more money than it collects in taxes. Many economists and elected officials argue that the resulting budget deficit is harmful to the economy, since increasing government debt raises the cost of borrowing, crowds out private investment, and leads to slower economic growth. Reducing the budget deficit would require raising taxes, cutting spending, or both. Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please show whether you would like to see cuts or increases in government spending in each area.

Here is a graph that I made with the results.


A majority of the public wants to cut only one program—culture and the arts—which, as Bartels notes, makes up a miniscule portion of the federal budget. As I noted previously, various surveys suggest that the more a government program costs, the less the public wants to cut it.

Moreover, reminding the public about the deficit doesn’t make them want to cut spending much more. Bartels:

Did forcing respondents to consider the negative impact of budget deficits make them more supportive of cuts in specific government programs? Yes, but not by much. The deficit frame significantly increased public support for budget cuts in just three of eight areas: the environment (by 9 points), defense (by 7 points), and culture and the arts (by 5 points). For the popular big-ticket social welfare programs on the list—health, education, and pensions—the numbers didn’t budge. Even with heavy-handed prompting to focus on the budget deficit (and no mention of specific popular programs like Social Security or Medicare, and with cutting spending rather than increasing spending as the first response option), support for budget-cutting in these areas ranged from just 15% to 21%.

Bartels also breaks down the results by party and finds that most Republicans don’t want to cut most programs.

Most of them opposed cutting spending on most of the programs in the survey, even in the deficit frame. Fewer than one in three favored cuts in law enforcement, pensions, and education. (41% favored cuts in spending on health, presumably a tribute to Republican leaders’ energetic campaign to vilify “Obamacare.”) While honest-to-goodness fiscal austerity may appeal to a vocal minority of Republican activists, it looks distinctly unpromising as the centerpiece of “a united GOP agenda” with broad electoral appeal.

This is in line with what I found among self-identified conservatives.

None of this means that spending won’t get cut. The GOP has promised to cut and Obama seems willing to go along, at least to some extent. But the public won’t provide them much incentive.

6 Responses to Americans Don’t Really Want to Cut Goverment Spending

  1. OneEyedMan February 2, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    I’ve heard that when it comes to specific examples of using the bill of rights protections, the public (or at least large minorities) is opposed. However, when you ask them if they’d rather protect everything (already covered) or nothing they’d pick everything because everyone has protections that are really important to them.

    I wonder if something like that is operating here. Maybe if we asked people if they would support a 10% reduction in all these programs they’d feel different than cutting specific programs, because each program has its own constituency.

  2. Centerist Cynic February 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    I wonder when these polls are done if the problem is because the questions are asked in the abstract. Of course people don’t want to cut anything if it can be helped. If it were possible to conduct a survey that required a finite amount of money to be allocated among programs we might make some progress.
    I also blame politicans for this one. If you tell the American people often enough that all the budget problems could be fixed if only our money was spent more wisely and fraud, waste and abuse was eliminated you really can’t blame them when they start to believe it.

  3. Th February 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    I agree with Centerist Cynic. Instead of a “deficit hawk” message, start with a “budget reality check” message. How many poll respondents think they solve the budget problem by cutting arts and foreign aid?

  4. ST February 3, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    As I noted previously, various surveys suggest that the more a government program costs, the less the public wants to cut it.

    Which kinda makes sense, given that there has to be support for such programs to begin with. I have to believe that if there were more support for certain programs their budgets would already be larger.

    @ Th

    From the research I’ve seen, people are woefully misinformed as to what actually makes up the budget and how money is spent. One doozy is “foreign aid” which is consistently thought to be several times larger than than it actually is (its basically a rounding error), and in reality is mostly gifts of military hardware made by American contractors.

  5. chris February 3, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    the more a government program costs, the less the public wants to cut it.

    Surely the simplest explanation for this is that if lots of people want to cut it, it would have been cut already, which is why it doesn’t cost much anymore.

    Also, the military seems like a large counterexample to this generality. Pretty sure it outweighs most of the other items on the chart, especially at the federal level, but it’s the second most cuttable.


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