The news is full of stories about tensions among Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Party Freshman Congresspeople about how to deal with the federal deficit. The heat generated by the debate in the nation’s capital should be of special concern among nonprofits and charities, as the quick political response has been to cut deep into the annual ‘discretionary spending’ budget, rather than the long-term and structurally significant costs of defense, national security, and Medicare/Medicaid. Many charities depend on some government funding, and thus a small cut of federal spending means a huge gash out of a local organization’s budget.
With all the bickering evident in the news, one might assume that our representatives are, well, representing our divisions. A couple of fascinating studies reported in The Fiscal Times show that the divisions about dealing with the budget are not as tidy, or as deep, as the news coming out of Capitol Hill suggests.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons conflict over the budget among the American people might not be so heated is that Americans across the political spectrum share similar ignorance about what amounts of federal dollars actually go to what programs. Bruce Bartlett presents a synopsis of a number of polls concerning the federal budget that demonstrates our misunderstandings about expenditures. And the misunderstandings are shared across the political spectrum:
Afound that three-fourths of people underestimated Social Security’s and Medicare’s share of the budget, three-fifths underestimated the share going to national defense, 70 percent of people grossly overestimated the share going to foreign aid and to education, three-fourths overestimated the share going to interest on the debt, and almost 40 percent overestimate the percentage of the budget for non-defense discretionary programs.
Of the many polls he summarizes, one of the striking things I found was how both supporters of federal dollars for education and its detractors notably overestimated how much of the federal budget goes into education. Cutting it entirely would hardly move the debt numbers over the next decade.
And yet, once citizens are given a specific budget (deficit) and asked to create one for themselves, members of all three parties defy stereotypes in dealing with it. Eric Schurenberg surveys a survey from theat the University of Maryland that can bring hope for change.
For example, all groups understood the need to raise taxes, even their own, though by how much fell into fairly predictable groups along party lines:
More than 90 percent of respondents included tax hikes in their budget plans, mostly in the form of higher effective tax rates on households with incomes over $100,000. Once again, the breakdown defied expectations.
While Democrats were most inclined to raise individual income taxes (on average they’d raise $178 billion), Republicans and strong Tea Party sympathizers were also willing to lift income taxes significantly ($125 billion and $105 billion, respectively). While respondents tended to support raising income taxes on people in higher tax brackets than their own, they were surprisingly willing to accept an increase in their own bracket as well.
About the only substantive difference that saw respondents hang on fiercely to the position held by their parties was over the catch-all of national security. Republicans wanted to expand it – Democrats wanted to cut it. Interestingly, national security and the defense budgets were considered separately, and all three parties agreed to cuts to defense spending (again, by differing amounts).
For the nonprofit and charity communities, perhaps the brightest spot was the fact that significant majorities of all groups agreed to increase job training, education, and foreign humanitarian assistance (all of which make up about 2% of the federal budget).
With all the heat directed at us on the news and through the internet, these reports offer some light on the political stand of Americans ‘outside the Beltway.’ Though we have our differences, many of which are built on ignorance about our government’s budget, we seem quite more willing than our representatives to make some compromises and sacrifices. Maybe we are not getting the government we deserve?