WASHINGTON -- With the threat of a first-ever default by the federal government looming, policymakers are asking whether Americans are more worried about a default or the prospect of a continuing rise in the national debt. Recent polling data shows that Americans worry about both, implying that many could be conflating debt and default as twin signs of economic travail and out-of-control politics.
A Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll conducted May 19-22 found that while 47 percent of Americans were "very concerned" about raising the debt limit, another 37 percent were "very concerned" about the possibility of a default.
Data shared with The Huffington Post by the Pew Research Center shows that 26 percent of respondents said they were very concerned about both possibilities, and 64 percent of respondents were at least "somewhat" concerned about both.
Another poll suggests that relatively few Americans are paying close attention to the debt ceiling debate. A Gallup poll conducted May 5-8 found that 42 percent of Americans said they were following news about raising the debt ceiling "not too closely" or "not at all closely," and another 34 percent said they were following that news "somewhat closely."
Although the Gallup poll did not ask respondents about any specific knowledge of policies surrounding the debt ceiling debate, the Pew/Washington Post poll found that many Americans admit to not understanding the consequences of failing to raise the debt limit. The poll asked respondents how well they understood "what would happen if the government DOES NOT raise the federal debt limit," finding that nearly half of respondents said they knew "not too well" (26 percent) or "not well at all" (21 percent).
Both of these polls may overestimate the extent to which Americans are paying attention to or understand the debt ceiling debate, since respondents might be inclined to exaggerate or overestimate their interest in or knowledge of something they perceive to be an important topic in the news. It's likely, then, that Americans' responses to questions about the debt limit are based more on general feelings or opinions formed on the spot than on well developed opinions on the issue.
Still, most polls, including the Pew/Washington Post poll, have shown that Americans are more worried about the idea of growing debt than about the idea of a government default.
- The Pew/Washington Post survey found that, when forced to choose, 48 percent of Americans said they were more concerned that "not raising the debt limit would lead to higher government spending and make the national debt higher," while only 35 percent were more concerned that "not raising the debt ceiling would force the government into default and hurt the nation's economy."
- Another poll, conducted by CNN April 29-May 1 found 60 percent of Americans opposed to raising the limit even though that meant "the government will not have enough money to pay all of its bills and other financial obligations."
- Gallup's poll found 47 percent of Americans would want their member of Congress to vote against raising the debt ceiling, while only 19 percent said they would want their representative to vote for it, though that survey did not explain any of the possible consequences of not raising the limit.
While Americans' opposition to raising the debt ceiling suggests a general discomfort with the government spending more than it takes in, surveys have found that specific sacrifices to reduce the debt could be difficult for Americans to swallow.
For example, a new Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday and conducted May 25-30 finds that Americans disapprove of many possible ways of reducing the debt and deficit, including reducing funding for programs for low-income Americans (54 percent), raising the Social Security retirement age (59 percent), reducing federal funding to states for education and roads (73 percent), taxing employer-provided health insurance (73 percent) and reducing Social Security benefits for higher-income seniors (54 percent).
In addition, a mid-April ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 30 percent of Americans would support cutting Medicaid to reduce the debt. Twenty-one percent would support cutting Medicare, and a slightly higher percentage (42 percent) were willing to cut military spending. Forty-five percent were willing to support a plan if "the national debt could be reduced significantly by raising taxes on all Americans by a small percentage and making small reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits, " but 53 percent said they were opposed.
Solutions to the problem that would not have an immediate effect on the average American are more popular. For example, the ABC/Washington Post poll found 72 percent of Americans would be willing to support tax increases for those with incomes over $250,000, while the new Pew release found that 67 percent of Americans are willing to subject more money earned by individuals with high incomes to the payroll tax. Sixty-five percent of respondents in the Pew survey said they would approve of scaling back military commitments overseas to reduce the debt and deficit.
Taken together, these polls suggest that while "debt" sounds like a scary concept to Americans, most are not following the debt ceiling debate closely and lack knowledge of the consequences of a government default. Opinions on the issue reflect a more general fear of economic turbulence, making it difficult to project what public opinion would look like if Congress passed or failed to pass a debt limit increase.