Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Government, the Social Safety Net, and the Partisan Divide

In July, 2012, the Pew Research Center issued a report chock full of interesting data collected in surveying evolving beliefs and attitudes: Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years: Trends in American Values: 1987-2012. Here we will discuss material presented in the section: Values About the Government and the Social Safety Net.

Pew uses the term social safety net, but does not appear to define what that means except in terms of the survey questions asked. Consequently, if it asks "Is it the government’s responsibility to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves?" the answer will be representative of a person’s general attitude rather than of a view of specific government programs.

Consider the data provided on responses to two specific questions that deal with the social safety net.

Considering the first survey statement first, the pre-2007 data would not necessarily indicate any kind of a long-term trend. However, there is a definite trend downward in support for government action in aiding the needy after 2007. A long-term trend is even less clear for the second statement, but there is clearly again a fall in support for the needy from 2007 on.

It is a bit surprising that the responses vary so much over time. A case could be made that the data follows the health of the economy: as people feel more satisfied with their own economic situation they become more generous. The post-2007 decline in support for the social safety net might then be caused by the dire economic state that ensued. Could it also be due to increased partisan divide over social issues?

Three related statements regarding government support for the needy were reported on here. In each case there seems to be no significant changes associated with the attitudes of those reporting themselves to be Democrats. There is a definite trend downward in support by Republicans, and Independents tend to be intermediate between the two parties. The year 2007 seems to represent an inflection point in Republican attitudes. It is not clear if that can be attributed to economic stress, or the stress of seeing Obama in the White House.

If there is a decline in support of a social safety net, it seems to be attributable to changing Republican attitudes. But does this indicate that Republicans have become more mean-spirited, or does it mean they have become more hostile to government action of any kind?

This statement is intended to determine if people believed government would be ineffective in running programs in general. The response of Republicans can be described as highly dependent on which party had control of the presidency. The response to the Obama presidency clearly was negative, but one should note that the negativity merely has returned attitudes to levels last seen when Clinton was president.

It is not clear from this data that those who think of themselves as Republicans have significantly changed their attitudes toward government. What has clearly changed is the attitude of Republican elected officials. This may indicate that the extreme positions of some legislators actually have them running way ahead of their constituencies.

The Democrats, if one ignores the response to the Bush presidency, seem to exhibit a long-term trend toward increased support for government activity. If there was a response to the Obama presidency, it was at least as large on the Democratic side as on the Republican side.

Pew presents another chart that addresses the partisan squabbling so evident in Washington.

When asked if they prefer representatives who are willing to compromise, Republicans are less in favor of that than Democrats, but their position on this issue has not changed much at all over the years. The extreme unwillingness of current Republican legislators to compromise may again be a case of them running far ahead of their constituencies.

The Democrats’ response seems to show a general increase in interest in compromise. As usual, Independents fall in the middle.

Pew also presents data on attitudes towards government efficiency based on the age of the respondents.

There clearly is a difference due to age. One has to wonder what it is about growing older that causes this cynicism about government. Increased experience with government might be one possibility, but if that were the case one would expect a gradual change as age increased. Another possibility may be associated with the onset of taxpayer dismay. Many 18-29-year-olds are still in school and have not yet experienced the reality of income taxes. If you are not in a position to grumble about taxes, then you don’t yet understand government.

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