According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Friday, most Americans think that the government spends a lot more money than it actually does on such unpopular programs as foreign aid and public broadcasting.
The poll's release comes one week before current funding for the government runs out. If there is no budget agreement between congressional lawmakers by next Friday, some government programs and offices may shut down.
"The public has a better idea of how much the government spends on programs like Social Security and Medicare, but there is a related problem - cutting them has little public support," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "The result: cutting unpopular programs would probably not cut the deficit very much, and cutting the deficit would probably require cuts in programs that Americans like."
Let's start with international assistance. Sixty percent of people we questioned say they'd like to put foreign aid on the chopping block. So would that make a dent in the deficit?
No - but try telling that to the American public. According to the poll, on average, Americans estimate that foreign aid takes up 10 percent of the federal budget, and one in five think it represents about 30 percent of the money the government spends. But the actual figure is closer to one percent, according to data from the Office of Management and Budget from the 2010 fiscal year's $3.5 trillion budget.
OK. Let's try more low-hanging fruit - funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our survey indicates nearly half of all Americans would like to see major cuts.
According to our poll the public estimates that the government spent five percent of its budget last year on public television and radio.
Not even close. The real answer is about one-tenth of one percent.
And so on.
What Americans DO know is what the government spends on Social Security and Medicare, but as stupid and self-sabotaging as average Americans have become, they haven't become THAT stupid and self-sabotaging. And when Republicans continue to insist that tax increases are off the table at the same time that corporations are paying little or no taxes AND getting refunds on taxes they didn't pay, they are not going to get Americans to agree with cuts to Social Security and Medicare. When Republicans continue to insist that tax cuts to the wealthiest people create jobs after the tax cuts instituted by George W. Bush at the same time as he was spending us into oblivion on two futile wars have been in place for a decade and there are still no jobs, they are not going to get Americans to agree with cuts to Social Security and Medicare:
Most Americans say they don't believe Medicare has to be cut to balance the federal budget, and ditto for Social Security, a new poll shows.
The Associated Press-GfK poll suggests that arguments for overhauling the massive benefit programs to pare government debt have failed to sway the public. The debate is unlikely to be resolved before next year's elections for president and Congress.
Americans worry about the future of the retirement safety net, the poll found, and 3 out of 5 say the two programs are vital to their basic financial security as they age. That helps explain why the Republican Medicare privatization plan flopped, and why President Barack Obama's Medicare cuts to finance his health care law contributed to Democrats losing control of the House in last year's elections.
Medicare seems to be turning into the new third rail of politics.
"I'm pretty confident Medicare will be there, because there would be a rebellion among voters," said Nicholas Read, 67, a retired teacher who lives near Buffalo, N.Y. "Republicans only got a hint of that this year. They got burned. They touched the hot stove."
Combined, Social Security and Medicare account for about a third of government spending, a share that will only grow. Economic experts say the cost of retirement programs for an aging society is the most serious budget problem facing the nation. The trustees who oversee Social Security and Medicare recently warned the programs are "not sustainable" over the long run under current financing.
Nearly every solution for Social Security is politically toxic, because the choices involve cutting benefits or raising taxes. Medicare is even harder to fix because the cost of modern medicine is going up faster than the overall cost of living, outpacing economic growth as well as tax revenues.
"Medicare is an incredibly complex area," said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who used to chair the Budget Committee. "It's a matrix that is almost incomprehensible. Unlike Social Security, which has four or five moving parts, Medicare has hundreds of thousands. There is no single approach to Medicare, whereas with Social Security everyone knows where the problem is."
It turns out that when there is a program that benefits people who Americans perceive as having been hard-working, especially when everyone has already paid into that system, they do not want the budget balanced on their backs while the CEO of Exxon Mobil gets to buy himself another yacht in an attempt to fill the hole in his soul.
How about we do something to keep people healthier during their working years so that they can be healthier in their senior years? Perhaps if workers actually have time for fitness in their day instead of working 100-hour weeks to prove their value to the company, we'll have fewer obese adults. Perhaps if people in poor neighborhoods can buy quality foods for a reasonable price there won't be as much Type 2 diabetes. Perhaps if we acknowledge just how difficult quitting smoking is and finding ways to make it easier to quit smoking without risking telling the wrong person to go to hell in the middle of a meeting, there will be fewer lung cancer deaths. Perhaps if we make towns bicycle- and walk-friendly, people will get out of their cars more often. Perhaps if we stop trying to be "the most productive nation in the world" while working our citizens into early health problems, we can spend less per capita on Medicare.
But that's not likely to happen, because those who rely on Medicare now and in the future don't buy politicians. Corporations do.