Provided Opportunities to Grapple with Tough Choices, Public Finds Surprising Amounts of Common Ground on Solutions – Even Tax Increases or Program Cuts. Main Obstacle to Progress is Mistrust in Leadership.
For release Dec. 12, 2006
For more information contact Michael Hamill Remaley or Claudia Feurey of Public Agenda at 212-686-6610.
Download Viewpoint Learning's report (PDF) || Download Public Agenda's report (PDF)
New York City – Two new public opinion research studies being released today from the nonpartisan "Facing Up to the Nation’s Finances" Initiative conclude that the public has little difficulty understanding the magnitude of the fiscal challenge facing the nation and is willing to consider tough tradeoffs to address the growing national debt. But their support for program cuts, reforms or tax increases comes with one key condition: finding ways to increase trust that their leaders will spend their money responsibly and for the purposes intended.
The two reports are from Public Agenda and Viewpoint Learning. Public Agenda's opinion research report is based on a series of six focus groups held across the country in March and April 2006. The focus group research served as grounding for a more in-depth ChoiceDialogues conducted by Viewpoint Learning. This ChoiceDialogue methodology goes beyond polls and focus groups to provide insight into how the public will resolve tough tradeoffs on issues where they have not yet made up their minds.
"Facing Up to the Nation's Finances" is an initiative developed by Public Agenda and Viewpoint Learning drawing on the research and analysis done at The Brookings Institution, The Concord Coalition, and The Heritage Foundation.
Among the focus group findings in Public Agenda's "Facing Up to the Nation's Finances: Understanding Public Attitudes about the Federal Budget":
- While largely uninformed on federal budget issues, the public requires relatively little information to get to an appreciation of the magnitude of the problem.
- Confronted with basic facts, the public is able to face up to the federal budget challenges. While Americans remain fixated on "government pork" and want waste addressed first, they are open to talking about solutions that politicians often assume are "off the table."
- The public's deeply felt cynicism about government is a major barrier – on this issue even more than on other issues – which must be addressed before progress can be made.
Viewpoint Learning's "Americans Deliberate Our Nation's Finances and Future: It's not about taxes – It's about trust" ChoiceDialogue findings show that, given an opportunity to work through the issues, Americans find a surprising amount of common ground:
- In three different parts of the country and on issue after issue –- from Medicare and Social Security, to defense and other federal programs, to taxes and debt -– participants concluded over the course of the day that there is a need for action and that they were willing to support changes that require sacrifice —- including program cuts and tax increases.
- At the same time, on issue after issue, they concluded that that they would only support such action if they could be assured that their tax money was being well spent and for the purposes intended – an assurance they do not feel today.
The report concludes, "The main obstacle to building public support for difficult choices on our nation's finances and future is not public opposition to tax increases or to program cuts, nor is it public lack of interest; the main obstacle is a deeply felt and pervasive mistrust of government."
Both reports and more information about the initiative are available at: www.publicagenda.org.
"Americans are willing, but is our government able?" said Alice Rivlin, Senior Fellow and Director of the Economic Studies Program at The Brookings Institution. "These two reports provide ample evidence that the public senses the gravity of the federal budget situation even if they don't know all the details. They talk reasonably about various solutions, and are willing to consider tax increases and program cuts, but only if they believe our leaders are doing all they can to have the long-term interests of the country in mind and can be held accountable for their actions on behalf of all citizens."
"Americans do not view these issues in the 'red vs. blue' terms that define the debate for political insiders," said Viewpoint Learning president Steven A. Rosell. "They are pragmatists, not ideologues. We found that people were willing to mix and match very different political approaches if they felt it would lead to workable solutions. Rather than using wedge issues that often reinforce gridlock, leaders can build on this common ground to create sustainable reforms and broad-based public support for action."
"'Facing Up to the Nation's Finances' is becoming a countervailing force to the inaction and finger-pointing Americans have witnessed on the federal budget," said Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden. "We are convinced that when Americans have the chance to confront the nation's long-term financial challenges, and when they have the opportunity to work through options and weigh choices for addressing it, people will voice practical, no-nonsense views and become increasingly insistent that leaders take action on this crucial matter that affects us all. These preliminary reports provide strong evidence of both the strong public will and the formidable barriers to progress."
The "Facing Up" initiative aims to organize a nonpartisan movement of citizens and leaders in honest public dialogue to call for meaningful action in confronting the long-term challenges to our future. Among those challenges are the impending retirements of the baby boomers, the growth in health care costs and the budget deficit and accumulated nation debt. The initiative involves new forms of opinion research, public engagement and intensive engagement of leadership in a multi-year project leading up to the 2008 Presidential elections and beyond.
The Facing Up to the Nation’s Finances project is being supported by the Ford Foundation.
Public Agenda Focus Group Study: Six focus groups were conducted overall. Groups were generally recruited to roughly reflect the general population with respect to gender, race, party affiliation (each group having several Republicans, Democrats and Independents) and other major demographic characteristics, with some variations for research purposes. Thus for the first two focus groups we conducted (in Englewood, NJ and Kansas City, MO) demographic criteria were used to recruit a cross-section of the general population. For the two focus groups in held in San Antonio Texas we targeted specific age groups. In one all of the participants were between the ages of 50 and 70, while in the other all of the participants were between the ages of 25 and 35. To experiment with the impact of people who consider the budget a high priority concern, in the two focus groups in San Diego we recruited at least one individual per group who considered the federal debt a top national issue. All groups were facilitated and analyzed by senior Public Agenda staff.
Viewpoint Learning ChoiceDialogues™ Research Study: ChoiceDialogues are designed to engage representative samples of citizens in working through their views on complex issues. ChoiceDialogues go beyond polls and focus groups to explore how and why people’s minds change as they learn. Participants are invited to weigh the pros and cons of various choices, struggle with the necessary trade-offs of each, and come to a considered judgment – all in the course of a single eight-hour day. Conducted with a representative sample, ChoiceDialogues provide both a basis for anticipating how the broader public will resolve issues once they have the opportunity to come to grips with them and offer insight on how best to lead such a learning process on a larger scale. Viewpoint Learning conducted an initial series of three daylong ChoiceDialogues in San Diego, Kansas City, and Philadelphia (35-40 participants per session). Two Viewpoint Learning facilitators led each session, and findings are based on quantitative analysis of before and after questionnaires and qualitative analysis of videotapes.
Viewpoint Learning, a research and consulting organization, co-founded by Daniel Yankelovich and Steven Rosell, conducts specialized dialogues that enable leaders to understand different perspectives in depth, increase options, anticipate obstacles and broaden support for difficult decisions. (www.viewpointlearning.com)
Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public's voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public's views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues. (www.publicagenda.org).