Polls Show Americans' Confused View of Stimulus, Taxes, Deficit

A poll finds Americans united in the belief that the antirecessionary policies thus far pursued by the government have mostly benefited big banks.

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In recent weeks, a growing number of academic and market economists have been urging the government to defer budget cutting measures and instead provide additional stimulus to a still fragile economy. A recent survey, however, portrays the public as, at best, dubious about this prescription.

The latest Pew Research Center/National Journal Congressional Connection poll finds an overwhelming proportion of Americans united in the belief that the antirecessionary policies thus far pursued by the government have mostly benefited big banks and financial institutions as well as big business and wealthy individuals. Getting the short end of the economic stick: the middle class and the poor.

[Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy.]

Unusual in the current hyper-partisan era is that some of these impressions are shared across party lines: 77 percent of Independents, 75 percent of Republicans, and 73 percent of Democrats say government policies have helped large banks and financial institutions. No more than one third in each group says government policies have done a great deal or a fair amount for the poor. Are the U.S. masses poised to man the barricades, threatening the plutocrats who have grown rich at their expense?

Not likely. When it comes to questions of class divisions, the American people are steadfastly of two minds. Indeed, one can find evidence of this deep-seated ambivalence elsewhere in the findings from the same poll.

For example, far from demanding that the government reinforce its efforts so as to help neglected middle and lower-income groups, a majority of the public views cutting the federal budget deficit as more important than stimulating the economy. This despite findings, in two other recent Pew Research polls, that more than half of adults have suffered job-related losses during the recession and even more have had to cut back on expenses, and that jobs are an even higher priority among the public than deficit reduction. And then there are those other recent polls showing consumers share the economists’ worries about a second economic dip.

Moreover, fully 4 in 10 rate further tax cuts an even higher priority than reducing the federal deficit, an especially interesting priority given that the overwhelming proportion of taxes, other than Social Security and Medicare payroll tax deductions, are paid by the same upper-income classes who, in the judgment of most Americans, have benefited most from the economic policies the government has implemented since the start of the recession in 2008 and that a Pew poll last year found a 61 percent majority supported raising taxes on those with incomes above $200,000.

These seemingly warring preferences are a persistent strain in the nation’s thought. True, the number of Americans seeing the nation as divided between “haves” and “have-nots” rose over recent decades. It reached a high in 2007, with the public splitting an even 48-48 percent between those seeing and not seeing such a divide and 34 percent classifying themselves as among the have-nots. (In 1988, 26 percent saw a have/have-not divide, and only 17 percent saw themselves as being on the negative side of the economic balance.) But both these perceptions receded over the following two years despite the economic decline: By late 2008, 44 percent saw an economic split and that percentage declined sharply in the first months of the Obama administration to 35 percent in April 2009.

This aversion to the notion of an enduring economic divide is in line with a belief, routinely expressed by Americans, in the potential for upward mobility in American society as well as strong admiration for those who have climbed the heights of the economic ladder. The 2009 Pew Research Political Values survey, for example, found that--in the depths of the economic downturn--fully 76 percent agreed that “the strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business.” Moreover, 9 in 10 agreed--as they have in surveys since the question was first asked in 1992--that they “admire people who get rich by working hard.” (Although 6 in 10 worried that “many people today think they can get ahead without working hard and making sacrifices.”) And by a 64-to-32 percent margin, Americans reject the idea that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.”

But wait—the political values survey itself might seem to call into question some of these opinions. Business may be the backbone of the nation, but the great majority of Americans (77 percent) still say that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies.” Moreover, a 62 percent majority says businesses make too much profit; only 37 percent say businesses “generally strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest.” 

By a 2-1 margin (62-to-29 percent) the public also agrees that “the free market needs regulation to best serve the public interest”--never mind that, in the opinion of a 54 percent majority, “government regulation of business does more harm than good.” Or that 57 percent say that things run by the government are usually wasteful and inefficient--though, of course, that doesn’t mean that the government shouldn’t take care of people who can’t take care of themselves (63 percent say it should).

Confused? Join the crowd.

  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy.
  • See which members of Congress get the most from the finance & credit industry.
  • Read more coverage of the political stories of the year.