As a divided Congress moves to extend jobless benefits this week, a narrow majority of the public says it is more important for government to reduce the budget deficit than to spend money or cut taxes to promote economic growth, according to the latest Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center.
Fifty-one percent of the public favors reducing the budget deficit; 40 percent supports spending more to help the economy recover. When asked to prioritize deficit reduction and tax cuts, 51 percent favored reducing the budget deficit, versus 41 percent for cutting taxes.
Compared to readings taken last summer and February, it is the first time that significantly more respondents ranked the budget deficit a bigger priority than spending. In February, Americans were evenly split on the question at 47 percent.
"It's not a sea change, but you do see more concern about the deficit than we saw earlier this year," said Carroll Doherty, associate director at the Pew Research Center. "It's abstract, but it's out there."
Independents' opinion on the question mirrors that of the public at large, with 53 percent saying that reducing the budget deficit outweighs spending, and 38 percent saying that spending is more important.
However, it's a reversal for independents since February, when they held increased spending to be more urgent than reducing the deficit, 51 percent to 42 percent.
Republicans are particularly stirred by the deficit, which stood at $1 trillion at the end of June for FY10. Seventy-three percent of Republicans favored reducing the budget deficit over spending more to promote growth.
Like Republicans, Americans 50 and older also put reducing the deficit ahead of spending to stimulate growth, 50 percent to 36 percent, while those under 50 were split 48 percent to 43 percent.
When asked to choose between reducing the deficit and cutting taxes, results for Republicans were mixed, with 45 percent prioritizing the deficit, and 47 percent favoring tax cuts to stimulate growth. Democrats clearly prefer prioritizing the deficit to cutting taxes, 57 percent to 32 percent.
On the separate question of how best to encourage economic growth, the public is divided, with slightly more in favor of spending more rather than cutting taxes. Forty-seven percent said that spending more on education, public works and unemployment benefits would be more effective than cutting taxes on individuals and business. Forty-one percent favored tax cuts.
Differences of opinion were most distinct by party identification. Democrats favor increased spending to tax cuts by a nearly three-to-one margin, 67 percent to 23 percent. Republicans favor tax cuts by a two-to-one margin, 61 percent to 31 percent. Political independents fall on the side of tax cuts, favoring them to spending by 51 percent to 38 percent.
Outside of party identification, the sharpest distinctions on how to encourage economic growth were among non-whites, women and those aged 18-29, all of whom favor increased spending by wide margins. Women favor increased spending to tax cuts 53 percent to 35 percent; non-whites, 62 percent to 31 percent; and young people, 58 percent to 36 percent.
The poll of 1,003 adults reached by landline or cell phone was conducted Thursday through Sunday. The margin of error is 4 points for the entire sample, with larger error margins for subgroups.
This article appears in the July 24, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.