Poll: Americans Split on Concern For Very Poor

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)

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.

National Journal