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EPI’s The Pulse—Election Issues

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What do Americans think about the issues being discussed by the presidential candidates? With Election Day approaching, this edition of The Pulse looks at several issues being discussed this election season and summarizes current opinion on each topic.

Tax Cuts
Americans favor federal tax cuts but are generally more supportive of targeted cuts. A Gallup poll conducted in September 2000 found that 74% of the respondents were in favor of a cut in federal income taxes, while 23% said they were not. When asked to choose among two types of cuts, 44% chose targeted tax cuts to alleviate specific problems, while 41% chose broad, across-the-board tax cuts, and 10% preferred no tax cuts at all. Furthermore, when given the choice between broad, across-the-board tax cuts and targeted tax cuts benefiting mostly those making less than $70,000 a year, 51% supported targeted cuts, 33% supported broad cuts, and 14% prefered no tax cuts at all (see the full Gallup poll release). A September 2000 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that, when given two choices and asked which they favored more, 58% chose tax cuts targeted to lower- and middle-income families and 40% chose cutting taxes for people in all income brackets (see the full text of the Pew poll). Similarly, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll of registered voters conducted in September 2000, 53% favored a smaller tax-cut plan that provides targeted tax cuts mainly for lower- and middle-income people and 45% supported a large tax-cut plan that provides an across-the-board tax cut for everyone.

Budget Priorities
Tax cuts do not fair well when compared to other uses of governemnt revenue ( also see the Pulse on taxes). A poll of registered voters conducted for Newsweek by Princeton Survey Research Associates in August 2000 found that, when given two choices and asked what they preferred to see the federal surplus mainly used for, 66% said they wanted it used to pay down the debt and make Social Security/Medicare more solvent, and 27% of the respondents wanted it used to cut people’s taxes. The September 2000 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that when asked which of the following should be done with the available surplus money, 38% said it should be spent on Social Security and Medicare, 25% chose domestic programs, 21% reducing the national debt, and 14% wanted a tax cut. Similarly, a Washington Post/ABC News poll of registered voters conducted in September 2000 found that, when asked “which of these do you think should be the top priority for any surplus money in the federal budget” – 36% said strengthen the Social Security system, 29% said increase spending on other domestic programs such as education or health care, 19% said put it toward reducing the national debt, and 14% said cut federal income taxes. A survey conducted for the American Association of Retired People (AARP) by Roper Starch Worldwide in July 2000 asked the respondents to prioritize (high, medium, or low) uses for the federal surplus: 73% rated education as a high priority; 69% rated making Social Security more financially sound as a high priority; 65% rated to making Medicare more financially sound as a high priority; 44% rated cutting federal taxes as a high priority; 39% rate paying off part of the federal debt as a high priority; and 33% rated defense as a high priority (see full AARP survey here). There is little evidence that Americans view paying down the debt as a top priority in and of itself; however, Americans do seem to see it as more prudent than cutting taxes. For instance, when asked in a May 2000 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, “Which government policy do you think would do more to help create good long-term economic conditions?” 51% said paying down the national debt, 34% said cutting income taxes, 11% said some of both, and 4% were not sure.

Health Care
Many Americans offer support for the incremental approaches to providing health insurance to the uninsured currently being discussed. In a poll of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University in July 2000, 69% of the respondents expressed “strong” or “somewhat strong” support for offering uninsured Americans income tax deductions, tax credits, or other financial assistance to help them purchase private health insurance on their own, but 28% were “strongly” or “somewhat opposed” to this. Also, in this poll, 77% of the respondents were “strongly” or “somewhat supportive” of expanding state government programs for low-income people, such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Programs, to provide coverage for people without health insurance, but 22% were “strongly” or “somewhat opposed” (click here to view the full Kaiser Family Foundation report).

Even if the major candidates are not discussing universal health care, many Americans see a role for the federal government in addressing the uninsured. A September 2000 Gallup poll asked respondents whether they think it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage — 64% said yes, and only 31% said it is not the responsibility of the federal government (5% had no opinion). In this Gallup poll, when asked whether it would make health care in this country better or worse if the government tried to reform the system, 54% felt it would be better, 35% felt it would be worse, and 9% had no opinion. And when asked in a Harris poll conducted in September 2000, “Do you think that as a country we could afford to provide everyone with all the health and medical services which they need, or would that cost more than we can afford?” 64% said we could afford it and 30% said we could not. The poll of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University in July 2000 found that 72% agreed that the federal government should work to increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance, while 24% felt that this was not something that the federal government should be doing. Of those who felt the government should be working to increase coverage, 52% agreed with the statement that “the federal government should make a major effort to provide health insurance for nearly all uninsured Americans, which would require a tax increase,” while 43% agreed with the statement that “the federal government should make a limited effort to provide health insurance for some of the uninsured, which would not require a tax increase.” This represents sizable support for increasing coverage, especially given the explicit reference to a tax increase. But when asked, in the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll, about “a national health plan, financed by the taxpayers, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan,” 58% of the respondents were “strongly” or “somewhat opposed,” and 38% were “strongly” or “somewhat supportive.” It should be noted that the question wording of this item implies a government role beyond providing funding for and guaranteeing access to health care
. Americans generally offer support for a federal government guarantee of health coverage and universal care (also see the Pulse on health care).

While the insured are generally satisfied with their own health care, the costs of health care represent a major concern and many Americans support government regulations. For instance, in the September 2000 Gallup poll, when asked how they feel about the health care of themselves and their family, 82% were satisfied with the quality of the health care they receive, and 70% were satisfied with their health insurance coverage. But among the six areas the Gallup poll inquired about, people expressed the lowest level of satisfaction with the cost of their health care, with only 59% expressing satisfaction. In the Gallup September 2000 poll, when asked whether the federal government should do more to regulate health care costs in this country, 76% said “yes” and only 21% said “no.” Similarly, a January 2000 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found 77% of the respondents thought that the federal government should do more to regulate health care costs in this country, and only 20% disagreed. The poll of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University in July 2000 asked whether they thought there was too much, not enough, or about the right amount government regulations for several areas: 56% of the respondents said there was not enough regulation of the cost of prescription medicines; 48% said their was not enough regulation of HMOs and managed care; and 45% said there was not enough regulation of health care (in general).

Regulating managed health care plans enjoys particularly high support among Americans. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in September 2000 respondents were asked “whether the federal government should create national standards to protect the rights of patients in HMOs and managed health care plans or would this get the government too involved in health care?” Fifty-eight percent expressed support for national standards, and 36% said this would get the government too involved. The July 2000 Kaiser Family Foundation poll asked respondents to consider a law that would require HMOs to provide people with more information about their health plan, make it easier for people to see medical specialists, allow appeals to independent reviewers when someone is denied coverage for a particular medical treatment, and give people the right to sue their health plan; 81% of the respondents favored such a law, and only 17% opposed it. Among those who favored it, 61% said they would still favor this “if it meant that some companies might stop offering health care plans to their workers because the companies are afraid they might be sued along with the health plan,” while 33% said they would not still favor it (7% of the respondents not sure).

Social Security
Many Americans support the general idea of establishing individual private accounts for Social Security, but this support is tempered by concerns about risk. An ABC News/Washington Post poll of registered voters conducted in September 2000 found that 59% support a plan in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market, but 37% oppose such a plan (4% had no opinion). Similarly, a Newsweek poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in June 2000 of registered voters found that, when asked whether they favored or opposed a proposal to change Social Security to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market, 51% expressed support, 36% opposed it, and 13% were not sure. However, when those who supported it were asked if they would still favor the proposal if they heard it might require reducing the Social Security benefits that seniors receive, only 17% said they would still favor it, while 85% said they would oppose it (18% weren’t sure). When asked, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in May 2000, about “a plan in which people who chose to do so could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market,” 61% expressed support, 34% opposed it, and 5% were not sure. There was somewhat more opposition among respondents in the other half of the sample who were asked about “a plan in which people could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market. When they retire, their benefits could either be higher or lower, depending on the stock market’s performance” — 61% supported the plan, 34% opposed it, and 5% were not sure (view complete question wording for all these items).

A poll conducted for AARP by Roper Starch Worldwide in July 2000 also found that people generally supported plans to allow individuals to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market and asked those who expressed support to consider several concerns: 55% said they would oppose the approach “if it meant you would receive a lower guaranteed Social Security benefit when you retire;” 40% said they would oppose it “if the ups and downs of the stock market meant you might receive less money throughout your retirement than if you had kept all your money in Social Security;” 46% would oppose it “if it meant each worker would have to pay the management fees associated with these accounts;” and 58% said they would oppose it “if it meant creating a new government agency to administer the program” (see full AARP survey here).Opinion is more evenly split when the question mentions the risks. For instance, in a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in May 2000, 51% felt it was a good idea to allow “individuals to invest portions of their Social Security taxes on their own, which might allow them to make more money for their retirement, but would involve greater risk,” while 45% felt this was a bad idea.

Americans also express support for other options besides diverting funds into individual investment accounts. When asked to choose between two approaches for dealing with Social Security — using some of the budget surplus to pay down the national debt now, and using general tax revenue later to help maintain the current Social Security system of guaranteed monthly benefits or changing the current system by allowing people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in private accounts in the stock market — an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters conducted in June 2000 found that 51% favored maintaining the current system compared to 38% who favored changing the current system by allowing people to invest some of their Social Security taxes (11% either weren’t sure or said neither/depends). Furthermore, the June 2000 Newsweek poll asked respondents about a proposal to create a supplemental savings program that would allow workers to put up to $2,000 a year of tax-deductible savings in retirement accounts outside the Social Security system with the government offering matching funds based on income level; 67% favored this proposal, 20% opposed it, and 13% didn’t know. Similarly, the poll conducted for AARP by Roper Starch Worldwide in July 2000 found that 70% of the respondents favored this approach, 20% opposed it, and 10% were not sure.

Beyond a general support supporting the idea of allowing workers to invest in the stock market, it is not entirely clear how Americans feel about the benefits and risks of such a plan. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters conducted in June 2000 found respondents split on what concerned them the most about dealing with Social Security when asked to compare two approaches: 45% were more concerned about “making some adjustments but leaving the Social Security system basically as is and running the risk that the system will fall short of money as more people retire and demand benefits” and 45% were more concerned with
“changing the Social Security system by allowing people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in private accounts and running the risk that some people will lose their private accounts due to drops in the stock market” (10% were not sure). The respondents in the AARP survey were split on the benefits of allowing workers to invest some Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market — 40% felt it would strengthen the Social Security system, and 43% felt it would weaken the system, with a sizable 15% not sure. Respondents were more optimistic about the proposal to create a supplemental savings program that would allow workers to put matched money in retirement accounts outside the Social Security system: 54% of the respondents thought it would strengthen the system, and 28% said it would weaken the system, but many respondents were not sure about the benefits (18%).

Prescription Drug Benefits
Covering prescription drugs expenses for senior citizens enjoys strong support. In an ABC News poll conducted in May 2000, 89% of the respondents support having the Medicare insurance program cover prescription drug expenses for senior citizens, and only 7% oppose this. Among those who supported it, 81% still support it if it meant they would have to pay more into the Medicare system, and 15% of them would oppose it. Similarly, a September 2000 Pew Research Center poll found that 91% favor (57% strongly favor) making prescription drug benefits part of the Medicare system while only 7% (2% strongly) oppose it. The poll of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University in July 2000 found that 68% of the respondents felt that it was the responsibility of the federal government to make sure people age 65 and over are able to buy the prescription medicines they need, and 29% felt that it was not. When asked to compare two proposals to help people age 65 and over to pay for prescription medicines, 57% preferred expanding Medicare to pay directly for part of prescription medicine costs, 36% preferred having the federal government help people buy private health insurance plans that would pay part of their medicine costs, and 7% opposed both approaches.

Education
Americans have great doubts about public schools, particularly schools as a whole as opposed to their local schools. But Americans have decidedly not given up on the public education. A Gallup poll conducted in August 2000 found a sizable 61% of the respondents were “completely” or “somewhat dissatisfied” with the quality of education students receive in grades kindergarten through grade 12 in the U.S. today, and 36% reported being “completely” or “somewhat satisfied” (see the full report on the Gallup 2000 education poll). But a poll of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University in May 2000 found that, when asked which statement came closest to their view of the public school system, only 6% agreed that “we need to completely replace it;” 63% agreed “there are good things, but it requires major changes; and 29% agreed that “its basically okay, but does require some minor changes” (see the full Kaiser Family Foundation report). When asked in a 2000 Gallup poll conducted for Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) to choose between two plans, 75% preferred improving and strengthening the existing public schools compared to 22% who preferred providing vouchers for parents to use in selecting and paying for private and/or church-related schools (see the entire 2000 Gallup/PDK survey).

The public’s support for alternatives to public education is mixed, and many Americans lack knowledge on the subject. The 2000 Gallup/PDK survey found that 56% of the respondents opposed allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense, while 39% supported such a plan, and 5% weren’t sure. In this same survey, when asked about a proposal that would allow parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school they choose with the government paying all or part of the tuition, 52% opposed such a proposal, 45% favored it, and 3% weren’t sure. A January 2000 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of registered voters found that 60% of the respondents felt that government money only be spent on children who attend public schools, while 36% of the respondents felt that the government should spend money to assist low-income families who want to send their children to private or religious schools. But a September 2000 Pew Research Center poll found that 53% favor (24% strongly) federal funding for vouchers to help low- and middle-income parents send their children to private and parochial schools, while 44% (17% strongly) oppose it. However, the Kaiser Family Foundation May 2000 poll found that when respondents were asked if they knew what the term “school voucher” meant, a sizable 25% said “no,” and 19% said they weren’t sure. For the term “charter school,” 30% said they didn’t know, and 21% said they weren’t sure.

While Americans are dissatisfied with the performance of our nation’s schools, they are wary of punishing “failing schools.” In the May 2000 poll of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, the respondents were split on how to handle students who attend “failing schools”: 48% favored “a federal program to provide parents of a child in a failing public school with about $1,500 in federal education funds that they could use to send their child to a private school or another public school,” and 49% opposed it. When supporters were asked if they would still favor the plan “if the money came directly from the budget of the failing school, meaning there might be less money and the school could get even worse,” only 36% still favored it, and 59% said they now would oppose it. Furthermore, 63% of the respondents strongly or somewhat opposed reducing federal education funding to states where the academic performance of public school students is low and has not improved in five years as a way for the federal government to improve education and public schools; only 33% somewhat or strongly favored it. Similarly, in an April 2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 61% said they would oppose a plan to reduce federal education funding to school districts whose students don’t improve on standardized tests, but 36% said they would support such efforts.

Americans recognize the role of resources and funding in improving public education and apparently would like to hear what the candidates have to say about inequities in funding. A September 2000 poll commissioned by The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies found that 88% of the respondents consider it very (56%) or somewhat (32%) important to hear what positions presidential candidates take on “how to reduce the gap between rich and poor school districts in a fair way” (see the full Nation/IPS survey [PDF format]). The 2000 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll provided respondents an opportunity to identify the biggest problems facing their local public schools. In this open-ended item, lack of financial support/funding/money was the most mentioned problem this year, with 18% of those surveyed saying it’s the biggest problem. Lack of discipline, mentioned by 15% of respondents, was second, with overcrowded schools third at 12%. However, concern about standards/quality was mentioned by only 5% of respondents. And when asked in an open-ended item in the August 2000 Gallup poll “What action by the federal government do you think would be most effective in helping to improve public schools in the United States today?” 30% mentioned funding/more money for education (the highest response category). A Gallup poll conducted in April 2000 found that 62% of the respondents said that teacher salaries in the Unite
d States are too low, 26% said about right, and 5% said too high. An April 2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 65% of the respondents think that federal spending on education should be increased (with 42% of them saying increased a great deal), 26% said kept the same, and 8% said decreased. This represents sizable support for increased federal spending given the public’s overestimation of how much education money comes from the federal government. For instance, the poll of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University in May 2000 found that, when asked to estimate how much money the federal government contributes to the nation’s public schools, 30% said about one-half or more, 30% said one-quarter, and 29% said less than one-quarter.

Many Americans support funding for educational improvements and would be willing to pay more taxes. In the May 2000 Kaiser poll of registered voters, 64% of the respondents strongly or somewhat favor increasing federal funding to states so that all four-year-olds may attend preschool; only 34% are somewhat or strongly opposed to that. Furthermore, 76% of the respondents strongly or somewhat favor increasing federal spending on new school construction and modernization, and only 21% are strongly or somewhat opposed to that. Further, in the Gallup poll conducted in August 2000, 67% of the respondents said they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to improve the quality of education in their local school district, and only 31% said they would not.

Conclusions
This election season Americans feel strongly that the federal budget surplus should be used for Social Security, paying down the debt, and spending on health care and education. While they support tax cuts, they prefer targeted cuts. They feel that the lack of health care coverage needs to be addressed by the federal government, and they appear willing to see the costs of health care addressed through regulations. Americans are generally supportive of individual retirement accounts but express significant reservations about changing the Social Security system. Most Americans support providing prescription drug benefits for senior citizens. Americans also support public education and tend to see more federal money rather than less as the answer to failing schools. The issues of concern to Americans this election season involve costly yet valued public goods. The conflict between the values underlying support for public goods and the allure of private market solutions will continue to challenge us beyond this presidential election.

Last updated October 20,2000.


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