What Americans REALLY Think about Government

Beneath the surface lurks surprisingly strong public support for the public sector.

Do most Americans have an inherent dislike for government? Conservative commentators would certainly like you to think so. They portray hating government as being as American as apple pie and use it as a major justification for their attempts to reduce the public sector.

But what do Americans really think about government? It turns out that how we rate government varies tremendously depending on how we are asked about it. For example, when asked about government in general, most Americans often react negatively. They say that government is inherently wasteful and incompetent, and that corruption is a major problem.1 Only 29% trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. And nearly half see government as a threat to their rights and freedoms.2 From these kinds of responses it is easy to leap to the conclusion that most Americans really don’t like government at all – and thus they would seem to support the right-wing agenda of cutting back on it.

But poll questions that ask about government in the abstract can be very misleading. They tend to trigger the negative stereotypes of government that lie close to the surface in many of our minds – corrupt politicians, wasteful bureaucracies, “Big Brother,” etc. But if we begin to probe beneath these initial, knee-jerk attitudes towards government, we begin to see something very different. If we go beyond questions about government in general and begin to ask more specific questions about this institution, we see that many Americans express strong – often very strong – support for government and its programs.3

For example, if you ask people about how they feel about government regulation of business in general, their reaction is largely negative. Over half say they believe that government regulates business too much. But once you start to ask about specific areas of regulation – from automobile safety to health care – people are much more likely to say they want more regulation than they are to say they want less.4 When people consider the specific ways that government programs may lessen dangers and risks for themselves and their families, they become more supportive of government regulation of business and markets.

Smaller or Larger Government?

We see the same kind of public reactions when pollsters ask Americans whether they want smaller or larger government. If we are asked about this issue in the abstract, 45% of us say we want “a smaller government providing fewer services,” and 42% say that we want “a bigger government providing more services”5 -- a pretty even split. But then when people are asked about specific policy areas, much larger numbers of people say they support expanded government services. For example, almost three quarters of Americans say they want to see more federal involvement in ensuring access to affordable health care, providing a decent standard of living for the elderly, and making sure that food and medicines are safe. And over 60% want more government involvement in reducing poverty, ensuring clean air and water, and setting minimum educational standards for school. These are hardly the answers of a people who want drastically smaller government.

What are Government’s Responsibilities?

Conservatives like to portray America as the land of “rugged individualism” where people would rather go it alone than ever depend on government for anything. And surveys show that a large majority of Americans believe that people should take individual responsibility for their lives. But these surveys also reveal that surprisingly large numbers of people believe that the government should take the lead and be responsible for dealing with a wide variety of social and economic problems. 71% of Americans believe that the government has an important or essential responsibility for seeing to it that anyone who wants a job can have one. 63% believe that the government has an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with adequate housing; and 78% of us think that the government has an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with good medical care.6 Similarly large majorities strongly support the notion that it is the responsibility of the public sector to “guarantee a quality public education,” “protect the environment,” and “ensure equal opportunity for everyone.”7 Clearly when we stop to think about what government can do for us in specific areas, we don’t believe that we should be going it alone without any help from the government.

Strong Support for Government Spending

How do Americans view government spending? Republican legislators are constantly looking for ways to cut government expenditures on social policies and regulatory programs, and they claim that the American public is with them on this. But polls show that there is in fact very little public demand that we cut back on government spending. When asked about specific government programs, large majorities of Americans repeatedly say they don’t want spending cuts, and they often support increased spending in these policy areas. Table 1 shows the typical results of one of these surveys. As the results clearly demonstrate, very few people actually think the government should spend less on Social Security, crime, the environment, health, parks, education, highways, etc. The only areas where a substantial number of people want less spending are welfare (43.3%) and defense (30.3%). In almost every other issue area, less than 10% of the public want to cut spending.

Table 1: Public Attitudes Toward Spending on Government Programs8

Should Spend More

Spending About Right

Should Spend Less

Don’t Know or No Answer

Protecting the environment

59.8%

27.9%

7.7%

4.6%

Protecting the nation’s health

66.8%

25.0%

5.6%

2.6%

Halting the rising crime rate

60.9%

28.4%

9.3%

3.0%

Dealing with drug addiction

58.2%

27.9%

9.3%

4.6%

Improving the education system

69.7%

22.1%

6.3%

1.9%

Social Security

55.7%

31.9%

6.3%

6.1%

Solving urban problems

45.5%

29.8%

12.1%

12.5%

The military, arms, and defense

17.5%

46.3%

30.3%

5.9%

Highways and bridges

38.2%

47.1%

9.6%

5.1%

Welfare

16.0%

36.1%

43.3%

4.6%

Parks and recreation

34.0%

55.2%

6.1%

4.7%

Mass transit

31.7%

47.3%

9.4%

11.5%

More importantly, in every single one of these policy areas, a majority of Americans want the government to keep spending at least the same amount. And in the areas of the environment, health, crime, drug addition, education, and Social Security, a majority thinks the government should spend more. This evidence clearly shows that while we don’t seem to like the idea of government, we do like what it does for us in reality. And there is certainly very little support for the conservative agenda of drastically cutting back spending on important government programs.

Americans Even Support Taxes

But what about taxes? We all know that everyone hates government taxes, right? Aren’t conservatives right about that? Not necessarily. Again it depends on how you ask people about their taxes. If you ask them whether their federal income taxes are too high, 50% naturally say “yes.” But if the questions about taxes include a reference to what people get for paying their taxes, their answers suddenly become much more positive. 84% of Americans say that they “don’t mind paying taxes because my taxes contribute to making sure we have public schools, clean streets, public safety and a national defense, and a cleaner environment.”9 More importantly, 80% would rather maintain spending levels on domestic programs such as education, healthcare, and Social Security rather than lower taxes.10

Many Americans also acknowledge that it is their responsibility as a citizen to pay the taxes that support their government. 81% say they agree that they “don’t mind paying taxes because my taxes are part of my contribution to society as a citizen of the United States.”11 This is a pretty extraordinary statement. Not only do most Americans appreciate that taxes are necessary to provide the many vital government services that they all enjoy, they also don’t resent paying them. They clearly understand what Franklin Delano Roosevelt meant when he said: “Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.” So much for the conservative contention that Americans hate taxes and are rabid about cutting them back.

Beyond Knee-Jerk Criticisms

So what are we to make of all of these positive views of government that are revealed by these surveys? For one thing, these views show that the conventional wisdom promulgated by conservatives – that Americans uniformly hate government – is simply not true. Clearly most of us have a lot of knee-jerk criticisms of government in the abstract, but we also have a deep appreciation of government that goes far beyond those initial reactions. Sure, on the surface we are cynical about government, but underneath we know that public sector programs are important to our well-being as individuals and as a society. Most of us have enough common sense to support the vital government programs that are working to improve our lives – and we don’t mind paying the taxes and spending the money to make these programs effective.



[1] The National Election Studies, http://www.umich.edu/~nes/nesguide/toptable/tab5a_1.htm

[2] NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School Survey, May/June 2000.

[3] Much of this argument is based on Meg Bostrom “By, or for, the People? A Meta-Analysis of Public Opinion of Government,” March 25, 2005, on the Demos website. http://www.demos.org/pub469.cfm

[4] NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School.

[5] Survey conducted by CBS News, 1,177 adults nationally, November 10-November 13, 2003. Data provided by The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

[6] Martin Gilens, 1999. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy. University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 26.

[7] “Public Interests Project,” conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 1,002 adults nationally, October 21-26, 2003.

[8] Source: National Opinion Research Center, “General Social Survey Codebook 1998.”

[9] “Public Interests Project,” survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 1,002 adults nationally, October 21-26, 2003.

[10] “National Survey of Americans’ Views on Taxes” sponsored by NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation/Kennedy School

of Government, conducted by ICR, 1,339 adults nationally, February 5-March, 17, 2003.

[11] . “Public Interests Project,” conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 1,002 adults nationally, October 21-26, 2003.