Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 2: Views of Government and the Social Safety Net

The public takes a somewhat less cynical view of government today than it did in 2007. Americans are less likely to say that government is wasteful and inefficient (57%, compared with 62% in 2007) and more likely to believe that government is “really run for the benefit of all the people” (49%, compared with 45% in 2007). In addition, fewer Americans now say government controls too much of our daily lives or that the federal government should run only those things that cannot be run at the local level.

Despite these more positive attitudes about government responsiveness and effectiveness, there has not been a commensurate shift in support for a broader government mandate. In fact, public support for a government safety net for the poor has receded from a recent high in 2007. The share that believes that it is the government’s responsibility to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves has dropped from 69% two years ago to 63% today, and there have been comparable declines across other items related to government assistance to the needy.

These short-term shifts in support for the social safety net mark a return to baseline levels of support from a peak in 2007 rather than a sea change in beliefs about the government’s responsibility to the poor. The current tenor of public sentiment about the safety net remains much more supportive than it was in 1994, when public backing of social welfare programs was at an all-time low.

Similarly, views of government are more positive than they were in 1994. In the months prior to the 1994 Republican congressional victories, public cynicism about the role of government grew to record levels. By contrast, public sentiment about government today is among the most positive seen since 1987 (although it remains less positive than in the two years after September 11, 2001). Partisan divisions about both the social safety net and the broader role of government are among the largest observed in the last two decades. Democrats remain supportive of the safety net and are highly optimistic about government, while Republican opposition to the safety net and cynicism about government now match levels last seen in 1994. As a result of these large partisan gaps, independents – a growing group – now find themselves further away from both parties on these issues than they have been throughout most of the past two decades.

Less Cynicism about Government

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center’s 2007 values study found public skepticism about government rising to the highest levels measured since the mid-1990s. These critical views have abated in the current survey. While a majority of Americans continues to say that the federal government controls too much of daily life (55%), this is down from 64% two years ago. Similarly, the share saying that things run by the government are usually inefficient and wasteful has dropped from 62% to 57% over this period.

The ebb-and-flow of public sentiment about government over the past 22 years is particularly clear in evaluations of whether “the government is really run for the benefit of all of the people.” Currently, 49% say it is, up from a recent low of 45% in 2007. Positive ratings of the government reached a recent peak of 55% in 2002 – in the year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – and 57% in 1987 and 1989. The most skeptical evaluations of government came in July 1994, when only 42% said government was really run for the benefit of all the people and 57% said it was not, and again in 2007.

Partisan Views of Government

The improved ratings of government responsiveness and performance largely reflect the overwhelmingly positive responses of Democrats, but also somewhat more favorable assessments than in 2007 from independents as well. On a number of items, Democrats today express more positive views of government than at any other point in the last 22 years. This spike in positive assessments among Democrats has been matched by a countervailing negative trend among Republicans. In fact, Republican skepticism about government is now at its highest level since 1994, the last point when the party was out of power in both Congress and the White House. As a result, the current partisan gaps on many measures of satisfaction with government are now more pronounced than at any other point in the last two decades, with independents almost squarely in the middle.

The current shift in opinion is consistent with a long-standing pattern of partisan change in opinion following changes in party control. In general, people tend to hold more favorable opinions of government when their party is in control of the presidency. In 2007, about six-in-ten (61%) Republicans said that government was run for the benefit of all people, while just 40% of Democrats said the same. Today, those sentiments are reversed – 60% of Democrats say the government is run for the benefit of all, while just 41% of Republicans agree. Independents, typically skeptical about government responsiveness regardless of the party in power, remain so today; just 44% of independents now say government is run for the benefit of all.

Specific questions about the efficiency and appropriate role of government reflect even greater partisan differences. Because Republicans tend to be more skeptical about the role of government than Democrats, partisan opinions on these items tend to converge during times of Republican rule and diverge when Democrats are in office. Prior to now, the greatest partisan difference was in 1994, when Democrats last controlled both the Congress and the White House.

But current partisan differences exceed even those seen in the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. For the first time, substantially fewer than half (42%) of Democrats now believe that when the government runs something “it is usually wasteful and inefficient”; at the same time, nearly three-quarters of Republicans currently say they view the government as inefficient, near the record high (77%) proportion who said this in 1994. This 32-point gap is among the largest seen across all the values items in this survey today and substantially larger than at any point in the last few decades, including in 1994. By comparison, the 1994 partisan gap in views of government inefficiency was 19 points.

Partisan views of the federal government’s role in daily life largely mirror those of government inefficiency. Today, a 30-point gap exists between Republicans and Democrats on the belief that the “federal government controls too much of our daily lives” (72% of Republicans agree, compared with just 42% of Democrats). The largest gap seen before today, in 1994, had been 19 points (78% vs. 59%).

The increased partisan polarization on these questions is particularly evident in the shift among each party’s moderates. Whereas in past years differences between conservative and moderate Democrats and moderate and liberal Republicans were modest, today the perspectives on government among those in these groups more closely reflect those of their party’s ideological wings. Today, two-thirds (67%) of moderate and liberal Republicans describe the government as wasteful and inefficient, as do 77% of conservative Republicans. Among

Democrats, only 44% of conservatives and moderates hold this view, little different than the 39% of liberal Democrats who say the same.

While the partisan gap in evaluations of government has widened this year, independent opinion has undergone relatively little change. As a result, historically large gaps now exist between the opinions of independents and those of both Democrats and Republicans in their views about the effectiveness of government.

Blacks, Hispanics More Optimistic About Government

African American opinions about government are now significantly more upbeat than in recent years. Half of blacks now see the government as being run for the benefit of all Americans – a shift from the more cynical views of government held by African Americans during the Bush administration and a return to those held during the Clinton administration.

Blacks are also now much more likely than they were during the Bush administration to reject the view that the federal government controls too much (only 46% agree with this statement today, compared with 62% in both 2002 and 2003). In contrast, opinions among whites have shifted little over this period. However, as with all Americans, the relative stability of opinions among whites overall belies significant partisan differences; the shift in opinion about government among white Democrats largely mirrors the one seen among their African American counterparts.

Younger Americans Remain Less Skeptical

As has been the case for much of the last 22 years, younger Americans are less cynical about government than older Americans. However, this age gap is now larger than it has been since the 1990s. Currently, nearly six-in-ten (59%) of those younger than 30 say the government is run for the benefit of all the people, a nine-point increase since 2007. Opinions of those in older age groups have remained largely stable over the last two years.

This shift among the young is largely driven by change among younger non-white Americans. Among white non-Hispanic people younger than 30, 55% now say the government is run for all of the people, about as many as held this opinion in 2007 (56%).

Younger people also stand out for being less skeptical than older Americans about government efficiency. Since the first values survey in 1987, the gap between the percentage of those 65 and older who see the government as wasteful and inefficient and the percentage of those younger than 30 expressing this view has never dropped below 18 points. Today, only 43% of those under 30 say the government is inefficient, compared with 64% of those 65 and older, and comparable proportions of those ages 30 to 49 (58%) and 50 to 64 (65%).

Views on Regulation Become Partisan Again

Even in the wake of the economic crisis and the federal government’s increased involvement in the banking and automotive sectors, there is no overall shift in the balance of opinion about the effectiveness of government regulation. Today, a slim majority (54%) of Americans say that “government regulation of business does more harm than good,” little changed since 2007 (57%). By contrast, following the WorldCom and Enron scandals in 2002, the number of Americans expressing a negative view of government regulation reached an all-time low

of 48%.

But as with other questions about the role of government, this aggregate stability belies fundamental partisan shifts with the arrival of a new administration. In most values surveys over the last two decades, Republicans have been more likely than Democrats to view government regulation of business as, on balance, harmful. However, this gap is typically larger during Democratic administrations, and diminishes when Republicans are in office. In particular, in 2007, Democrats and Republicans were nearly equally likely to view government regulation of business as doing “more harm than good;” the highest level of Democratic agreement with this question since George H.W. Bush was in office. The current 34-point partisan gap reflects the shift in party control of government, but exceeds even those seen throughout the Clinton administration. Today, three-quarters of Republicans (75%) say that government regulation does more harm than good, compared with only 41% of Democrats.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, the differences in views between those on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum are now far starker than in past years. Today, 81% of conservative Republicans – and just 29% of liberal Democrats – say that government regulation of business does more harm than good. And unlike in previous years, the opinions of their moderate counterparts have also diverged; there is now an 18-point gap between moderate and liberal Republicans and conservative and moderate Democrats. In prior years, there was little or no gap in opinion between moderates of the two parties.

Views of the Social Safety Net

Measures of support for a government social safety net also traditionally show some of the largest divides in partisan opinions, and this year is no exception. As they have historically, substantial majorities of Democrats say that it is the government’s responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves” (77%); that the government should “guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep” (79%); and that the government should help more of those in need, “even if it means going deeper in debt” (65%).

Republicans support the social safety net at much lower rates, and that support has declined somewhat in recent years. They now are divided on the question of whether government has an obligation to those who cannot care for themselves (46% agree, 47% disagree). In 2007, a majority of Republicans (58%) agreed with the statement. On other social safety net questions, Republican opinion has also declined or remained stable. Republicans remain particularly opposed to increasing assistance to the poor at the risk of increased debt (only 29% support this).

With such large partisan divisions, the views of independents often drive the direction of public opinion overall. Over the last two years, independents have become considerably more conservative in their views of a government safety net, with support dropping to the levels last seen in the mid-1990s. Today, just 43% of independents say that government should aid more needy people even if the debt increases. Yet even within independents, the decline is less pronounced among those who lean to the Democratic Party than among those who lean towards the GOP.

Affluent See Dependency Problem

Overall, views of the dependence of the poor on government programs have not changed substantially from two years ago. But there is a more noticeable economic divide in assessments of the poor’s dependence on government, as higher income Americans are now more likely to say that the poor are too dependent on government aid than they have been over the course of the last decade.

More than three-quarters (77%) of those with family incomes of $75,000 or more now say this, a 10-point increase since 2007, while opinions among those with lower incomes have not changed. College graduates, too, have taken a more critical view over the past two years – the number saying poor people are too dependent on government aid grew from 60% two years ago to 71% today. Today there are no significant educational differences on this question; two years ago, those with college degrees were less likely than others to agree with the statement.

African American opinion on the poor’s dependence on government help is nearly unchanged since 2007, while a greater percentage of whites (76%, up from 71%) now say the poor are too dependent on government assistance, a return to the levels seen in the late 1990s.

The opinions of Republicans and Democrats are largely unchanged over this period. However, independents’ views have taken a rightward shift. Three-quarters (75%) of independents now say that the poor are too reliant on government assistance programs, a seven-point increase since 2007.

Mixed Views on Government and Health Care

Fully 86% of Americans agree with the statement that “the government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible,” including 59% who completely agree. Just 12% disagree. Despite this endorsement of government action, many worry about too much government involvement in health care. When asked if they are “concerned that the government is becoming too involved in health care,” about as many agree (46%) as disagree (50%).

The even split in public worries about too much government involvement in health care is largely a partisan one. Republicans, by more than two-to-one (68% vs. 30%) agree with the statement “I am concerned that the government is becoming too involved in health care,” while Democrats disagree by nearly the same margin (66% disagree, 29% agree), resulting in the single largest partisan divide over any of the 77 values questions in the survey. A narrow majority of independents (53%) disagree with the statement, while 44% agree.

There are ideological differences within each party in views about the government’s role in health care. Roughly three-quarters (74%) of conservative Republicans express concern about too much government involvement in health care, compared with 55% of moderate and liberal Republicans. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) liberal Democrats disagree with this concern, compared with 61% of conservative and moderate Democrats.

Concerns about the government’s involvement in health care are considerably more pronounced among older Americans than younger Americans. Just 39% of those under 30 say they are worried about the involvement of government in health care, while 53% of those 65 and older do so. There are also significant differences in the percentages who express worries between men (50%) and women (42%), whites (49%) and blacks (36%), as well as across income groups: 49% of those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more say they worry about too much government involvement, compared with 39% of those with incomes of less than $30,000.

Strong Support for Government Action

Despite these concerns, 86% of Americans agree that “the government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible,” and a majority (59%) completely agrees with this statement. Even among the nearly half of Americans who express concerns about too much government involvement, most (72%) favor more government action and 41% express this view strongly.

The political and demographic differences seen in concerns about too much government involvement with health care are mirrored in the percentages who completely agree with the statement that “government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible.” Strong agreement is most prevalent among the less affluent and the less educated. About seven-in-ten of those with annual incomes of less than $30,000 a year (68%) or who describe their household as “struggling” (72%) completely agree with a call for the government to do more to fix health care; in comparison, about half of those with family incomes of $75,000 a year or more (52%), or who describe themselves as “professional or business class” (53%), say the same. Similarly, those with no more than a high school diploma are more likely than college graduates to completely agree with the statement (64% vs. 52%)

Women, blacks and Hispanics are also significantly more likely than others to completely agree that government needs to do more to improve the accessibility and affordability of medical care. Nearly two-thirds of women (65%) say this, compared with just 54% of men. More than three-quarters of African-Americans (77%) and 69% of Hispanics hold this view, compared with just 54% of whites.

Not surprisingly, there are significant partisan differences here as well: More than three-quarters (78%) of Democrats completely agree that the government should improve accessibility and affordability of health care, nearly twice the proportion of Republicans holding that view (41%).

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information