CONGRESS

Poll: Americans Split on Concern For Very Poor

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A job seeker looks at a bulletin at the Texas Workforce Commission's Workforce Solutions of Greater Dallas job resource center in Richardson, Texas Tuesday, July 5, 2011. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in seven weeks, although applications remain elevated.  (AP Photo/LM Otero)
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 13, 2012, 4:30 p.m.

As the de­bate over the fed­er­al budget re­sumes, a new United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll shows that most Amer­ic­ans are con­cerned about grow­ing de­pend­ency on fed­er­al en­ti­tle­ments, but still res­ist ma­jor spend­ing cuts in pro­grams be­ne­fit­ing the poor and the eld­erly.

The sur­vey cap­tured a com­plex weave of at­ti­tudes sur­round­ing the so­cial safety net as Pres­id­ent Obama and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans pre­pare for an­oth­er year of com­bat over taxes and spend­ing. Like many oth­er sur­veys over the years, this poll found Amer­ic­ans sim­ul­tan­eously ex­press­ing philo­soph­ic­al con­cern about de­pend­ency and prac­tic­al re­luct­ance to sig­ni­fic­antly cut pro­grams that sup­port the eco­nom­ic­ally vul­ner­able.

After Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tender Mitt Rom­ney stirred con­tro­versy re­cently by de­clar­ing on CNN that he “was not con­cerned about the very poor” be­cause they had a safety net to shel­ter them from the eco­nom­ic storm, the poll found Amer­ic­ans closely di­vided on who has suffered most dur­ing the down­turn. A slim 51 per­cent ma­jor­ity said the middle class “is suf­fer­ing the most” dur­ing the eco­nom­ic slow­down, while 45 per­cent said the poor had ab­sorbed the most pain. Just 1 per­cent picked the wealthy.

That ques­tion pro­duced a mir­ror-im­age re­sponse along ra­cial lines: While 58 per­cent of whites said the middle class had suffered the most, 58 per­cent of non­whites picked the poor. Like­wise, 62 per­cent of those earn­ing less than $30,000 a year said the poor had suffered the most; 62 per­cent of those earn­ing at least $75,000 picked the middle class.

The Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, sur­veyed 1,000 adults from Feb. 9-12; it has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.7 per­cent­age points.

The sur­vey found a gen­er­ally re­cept­ive audi­ence, es­pe­cially among whites, for in­tensi­fy­ing ar­gu­ments from Rom­ney and oth­er GOP lead­ers that too many Amer­ic­ans now rely on be­ne­fits from gov­ern­ment pro­grams. The Census Bur­eau re­cently re­por­ted that nearly 49 per­cent of Amer­ic­an house­holds con­tained at least one per­son re­ceiv­ing be­ne­fits from a gov­ern­ment pro­gram as of late 2010.

In the poll, 53 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they were most con­cerned that “the gov­ern­ment taxes work­ers too much to fund pro­grams for people who could get by without help,” while only 38 per­cent said their prin­cip­al con­cern was that “fed­er­al pro­grams … don’t provide enough of a safety net for people who need help to get by.”

That ques­tion pro­duced a mod­er­ately sized ra­cial split: 56 per­cent of whites, com­pared with 44 per­cent of non­whites, said they were most con­cerned about gov­ern­ment tax­ing work­ers too much. Re­pub­lic­ans, young people, in­de­pend­ents, and those earn­ing more than $75,000 an­nu­ally also tilted most sharply to­ward con­cern about ex­cess­ive tax­a­tion, rather than an in­ad­equate safety net. White in­de­pend­ents, by nearly 2-to-1, wor­ried more about taxes than holes in the safety net.

But on oth­er fronts, those polled leaned more to­ward po­s­i­tions held by Demo­crats. An­oth­er ques­tion noted that since the re­ces­sion began, the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans re­ceiv­ing fed­er­al be­ne­fits like food stamps and hous­ing vouch­ers has sig­ni­fic­antly in­creased. Asked why those rolls have swelled, a 54 per­cent ma­jor­ity said it was be­cause “high un­em­ploy­ment has left more people in need of gov­ern­ment as­sist­ance.” Just 41 per­cent agreed that “gov­ern­ment is provid­ing be­ne­fits for too many people who don’t ac­tu­ally need them.”

This ques­tion gen­er­ated a much wider ra­cial split. While 45 per­cent of whites said these pro­grams are grow­ing be­cause gov­ern­ment is dis­pens­ing too many be­ne­fits, just 33 per­cent of minor­it­ies agreed; more than three-fifths of non­whites said the pro­grams are grow­ing mostly be­cause of high un­em­ploy­ment. On this ques­tion, a nar­row ma­jor­ity of in­de­pend­ents blamed the eco­nomy, not overly gen­er­ous gov­ern­ment policies, for the grow­ing case­loads.

As im­port­ant, the sur­vey found Amer­ic­ans un­con­vinced that safety-net pro­grams rep­res­ent a ma­jor source of the de­fi­cit prob­lem. When asked to identi­fy the biggest reas­on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment faces large de­fi­cits for the com­ing years, just 3 per­cent of those sur­veyed said it was be­cause of “too much gov­ern­ment spend­ing on pro­grams for the eld­erly”; only 14 per­cent said the prin­cip­al reas­on was “too much gov­ern­ment spend­ing on pro­grams for poor people.” Those ex­plan­a­tions were dwarfed by the 24 per­cent who at­trib­uted the de­fi­cits primar­ily to ex­cess­ive de­fense spend­ing, and the 46 per­cent plur­al­ity who said their prin­cip­al cause was that “wealthy Amer­ic­ans don’t pay enough in taxes.”  While minor­it­ies were more likely than whites to pin the blame on the wealthy avoid­ing taxes, even 43 per­cent of whites agreed.

Giv­en that dia­gnos­is, it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that re­l­at­ively few re­spond­ents said they would sup­port ma­jor re­duc­tions in safety-net pro­grams to re­duce the de­fi­cit. Fully three-fourths of those polled said So­cial Se­cur­ity should be cut “not at all” to re­duce the de­fi­cit, and ex­actly four-fifths said the same about Medi­care. Nearly two-thirds even agreed that Medi­caid should be en­tirely spared from cuts; just 5 per­cent said it should be cut a lot. There was more re­ceptiv­ity to re­trench­ing food stamps and hous­ing vouch­ers for the poor (only 51 per­cent said they should be en­tirely spared), but even so, just 9 per­cent said they should be cut “a lot.” Twice as many said de­fense should face big cuts.

One fi­nal front also showed a lean to­ward Demo­crats. Asked whose fed­er­al budget plan they ex­pec­ted to more closely re­flect their pri­or­it­ies, 47 per­cent of adults said Obama while just 37 per­cent picked con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans. That ques­tion ex­posed the widest ra­cial chasm of all: Among whites, Re­pub­lic­ans still led nar­rowly, while non­whites favored Obama by more than 3-to-1. Such a stark ra­cial di­vide may prove a com­mon fea­ture through cam­paign 2012.

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