As President Obama prepares to sign a bipartisan budget agreement that its proponents describe as a modest step toward addressing the deficit, the public shows little appetite for making some of the spending cuts often discussed as part of a broader “grand bargain” on the budget.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Dec. 3-8 among 2,001 adults, finds majorities say it is more important to maintain spending on Social Security and Medicare and programs to help the poor than to take steps to reduce the budget deficit. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say it is more important to maintain current Social Security and Medicare benefits than to reduce the deficit, while 59% prioritize keeping current levels of spending for programs that help the poor and needy over deficit reduction.
There is greater public support for cutting military spending in order to achieve deficit reduction. About half of Americans (51%) say reducing the deficit is more important than keeping military spending at current levels, while 40% say deficit reduction is more important.
Views of tradeoffs between government spending and deficit reduction are divided along partisan lines, and the differences are especially pronounced when it comes to programs that aid the poor and needy. Fully 84% of Democrats say it is more important to keep current spending levels for these programs than to reduce the deficit. A majority of Republicans (55%) say cutting the deficit is more important than maintaining current spending for programs to help the poor.
By contrast, majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (66%) and Republicans (62%) say it is more important to continue current spending levels for Social Security and Medicare than to take steps to reduce the budget deficit.
The survey finds that at a time when the nation’s annual budget deficit has fallen considerably over the past year, according to the Office of Management and Budget, most Americans do not think the country has made progress in reducing the deficit. Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say the country has not made progress in reducing the federal budget deficit, while just 29% say progress has been achieved.
In general terms, the public continues to support a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the federal budget deficit. About six-in-ten (63%) say the best way to reduce the deficit is with a combination of cuts in major programs and tax increases; 20% say the primary focus should be on spending cuts and just 7% say it should be on raising taxes. Since 2010, majorities have supported a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, though last December somewhat more (74%) favored this approach.
Wide Partisan Differences over Cuts in Aid to Poor, Military Spending
Republicans, by a 55%-to-35% margin, say it is more important to take steps to reduce the deficit than to preserve current spending on programs to aid the poor and needy. Fully 84% of Democrats and 53% of independents favor maintaining current levels of spending on aid to the poor over deficit reduction.
Tea Party Republicans, in particular, prioritize deficit reduction over programs to aid the poor. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans and Republican leaners who agree with the Tea Party (73%) say deficit reduction is more important than preserving present levels of spending on programs to aid the poor and needy. Just 48% of non-Tea Party Republicans express this view, while about as many (44%) say that maintaining spending on these programs is more important.
There also are substantial partisan differences over whether it is more important to keep current levels of military spending or to reduce the deficit. In this case, most Democrats (60%) rate deficit reduction as more important, compared with 53% of independents and just 36% of Republicans. Liberal Democrats are especially likely to say it’s more important to reduce the deficit (72%) than maintain military spending (21%); among conservative and moderate Democrats, 54% prioritize the deficit, 40% military spending.
Across party lines, the public is unwilling to cut Social Security and Medicare to take steps to reduce the deficit. This view is held by majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (66%) and Republicans (62%). However, there are differences among Republicans. Just 45% of Republicans and GOP leaners who agree with the Tea Party prioritize maintaining current levels of spending on Social Security and Medicare, compared with 66% of non-Tea Party Republicans.
In the current survey, there are very few consistent “deficit hawks” – those who prioritize the deficit over keeping current levels of spending in all three areas tested (military, aid to needy, Social Security and Medicare). Just 9% of the public consistently says deficit reduction is more important than the three areas of spending tested; this percentage is not much higher within the GOP (14%) or among Tea Party Republicans (18%).
Support for Military Cuts among Young People
Support for reducing the deficit through cuts to the military is particularly high among young people, under the age of 30. By two-to-one, more young people say it’s more important to take steps to reduce the deficit (64%) than to keep military spending at current levels (32%). By contrast, those ages 65 and older prioritize maintaining military spending over deficit reduction by a 55%-31% margin.
Within the GOP, Republicans and Republican leaners under age 50 are roughly divided, with 49% supporting deficit reduction and 42% maintaining military spending. Older Republicans are much more supportive of the military (60% maintain spending, 30% cut deficit).
A similar age gap exists within the Democratic Party. Democrats under 50 prioritize deficit reduction over military spending by a wide 71%-26% margin. Among older Democrats, that balance of opinion is more closely divided (51% reduce deficit, 41% maintain military spending).
There is less of an age divide when it comes to views of Social Security and Medicare benefits and deficit reduction. On entitlements, the youngest Americans (ages 18-29) prioritize maintaining Social Security and Medicare benefits over deficit reduction by a 61%-30%; among the oldest segment of the public, those ages 65 and older, 78% say it is more important to maintain benefits, while 14% say it is more important to reduce the deficit.
Income Differences in Views of Deficit and Spending
Deficit reduction is not as high a priority for lower-income households as for those earning more, especially when it comes to programs that help the poor and needy.
Those in households earning less than $30,000 a year are divided when it comes to the deficit and military spending; about as many prioritize maintaining current spending (47%) as reducing the deficit (45%). By contrast, majorities in households earning $30,000 a year or more say it’s more important to reduce the deficit than maintain military spending.
There is strong support among lower-income households for maintaining programs that serve the poor and needy. Three-quarters of those in households earning less than $30,000 a year say it is more important to keep spending for programs that help the poor at current levels; just 19% say it is more important to reduce the budget deficit. This view is held by a smaller 57% majority of those earning $30,000-$74,999; those who make $75,000 a year or more divide about evenly between prioritizing deficit reduction (47%) and maintaining assistance to the needy (46%).
As it does with party affiliation, support for Social Security and Medicare benefits crosses income levels. Majorities in all income categories say it is more important to keep Social Security and Medicare spending at current levels than to take steps to reduce the deficit. Those earning less than $30,000 a year say this by the most one-sided margin (78%-18%).
GOP Divided in Views of Deficit, Programs to Aid Poor
Republicans are divided by income in views about whether it is more important to maintain current spending on programs to aid the poor or take steps to reduce the deficit. Among Republicans and Republican leaners with family incomes of less than $50,000 a year, 48% say it is more important to maintain spending for the poor and needy, while 44% say deficit reduction is more important. Among those with incomes of at least $50,000 a year, deficit reduction is the higher priority by a wide 72%-20% margin.
Republicans also differ over the other items tested, with higher-income households expressing greater levels of support for deficit reduction than those earning less. Democrats and Democratic leaners generally are less divided by income in views of spending and deficit reduction, though higher-income Democrats are more willing than those with lower incomes to accept cuts in military spending to reduce the deficit (74% vs. 54%).
Most Saw No Progress on Deficit in 2013
In a year that saw deep, automatic spending cuts as part of the budget sequestration, but failed to produce a long-term agreement addressing entitlements and the tax code, the public does not believe the country has made progress reducing the budget deficit. Two-thirds (66%) say that over the course of the last year, the country has not made progress reducing the budget deficit; just 29% say it has.
Half of Democrats (50%), including 60% of liberal Democrats, say the country has made progress reducing the budget deficit over the course of 2013. By contrast, nearly nine-in-ten Republicans (87%) say the country has not made progress on the deficit. Among independents, 73% say the country has not made progress on the deficit, 23% say it has.
Tea Party Republicans Split on Best Way to Reduce Deficit
In general, the public continues to say that the best way to reduce the budget deficit is through a combination of tax increases and cuts in major programs. About six-in-ten (63%) favor a mix of tax increases and spending cuts; only 20% say the focus should be mostly on programs cuts, even fewer (7%) say it should be mostly on tax increases. The balance of opinion on this question has changed only modestly over the last several years, with majorities consistently expressing support for a mix of program cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit.
Majorities of Democrats (71%), independents (63%) and Republicans (56%) favor addressing the deficit through a combination of both tax increases and programs cuts. However, Republicans (32%) are far more likely than Democrats (10%) to see cuts in programs alone as the best way to reduce the deficit.
Among Republicans and Republican leaners who agree with the Tea Party, as many say the focus of deficit reduction efforts should be mostly on programs cuts (48%) as on a combination of both cuts and tax increases (44%). Non-Tea Party Republicans support a combination of program cuts and tax increases over mostly focusing on cuts to major programs by a 63%-26% margin.
About the Survey
The analysis for this report is based on telephone interviews conducted December 3-8, 2013 among a national sample of 2,001 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (1,000 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 1,001 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 523 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology/
The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and nativity and region to parameters from the 2011 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size among respondents with a landline phone. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting.
This report is a product of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.