WASHINGTON - As President Barack Obama and lawmakers spar over huge federal deficits, they're confronted by a classic contradiction: Most Americans want government austerity, a survey shows, but they also want increased spending on a host of popular programs: education, crime fighting, health care, Social Security, the environment and more. Less for defense, space and foreign aid.
The newly released General Social Survey asked people whether they believe spending in specific categories is "too much," "too little" or "about right." It covers the public's shifting priorities from 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, through 2012 with Obama in the White House.
"Despite a dislike of taxes, more people have always favored increases in spending than cuts," wrote the survey's director, Tom W. Smith, of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.
While people's priorities shift over the years, they've not changed on one category. Foreign aid has been stuck firmly in last place since the survey began. Last year, 65 percent of those surveyed thought there was "too much," 25 percent checked "about right" and a slim 11 percent said "too little." The numbers are not much changed from 1973 - when 73 percent said too much on foreign aid, 22 percent just right and 5 percent too little.
Various polls have consistently shown the public believes foreign aid is a far bigger slice of the spending pie than it actually is.
Foreign aid amounts to loose change, hovering for years at 1 percent or less of the federal budget, compared with defense spending and "entitlement" programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those are among the biggest deficit drivers and a focal point in Washington's recent budget debates. The survey shows the public is largely opposed to cuts in entitlement programs but tilts toward cuts in the defense budget.
To reach all these conclusions, Smith devised an index that boils down his findings to a single number for each category. If everyone favored more spending for a given program area, the maximum score would be +100; and if everyone wanted less spending, the score would be a negative number, -100.
On this scale, top-ranked "improving education" in 2012 scored +68.4 while bottom-rated foreign aid scored a -60.4.
Support for defense spending has swung back and forth between negative and positive over four decades. It posted a -28.4 in 1973 near the end of the politically divisive Vietnam War, turned positive in 1978 and peaked at +48.9 in 1980. It returned to negative territory from 1983 to 2000. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks and the start of the war in Afghanistan, support for more defense spending again went positive - through 2004. But it turned negative again as U.S. military involvement in Iraq increased and has been negative ever since.
Conversely, Social Security has always been in positive territory. Most people have favored increased spending on this program since the mid-80s, with the exception of 1993 and 1994.
On other issues: Most Americans in the poll favored increased spending for assistance to the poor (64 percent), improving the nation's health (61 percent) and Social Security (56 percent). Most also favored greater spending on domestic and social issues including education (76 percent), developing alternative energy sources (62 percent), reducing the crime rate (59 percent), improving the environment (57 percent) and dealing with drug addiction (56 percent).
Despite all this support for increasing spending, the survey found that 52 percent believed their own federal income taxes last year were too high, 46 percent said about right and just 3 percent said too low.
Taxes are a sore point in efforts to strike a deficit-reduction deal on Capitol Hill. The president insists any new package must contain a mix of spending cuts and new revenues from limiting tax deductions benefiting the wealthy. Republicans, especially those who control the House, adamantly oppose new taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
Of the 23 categories in the survey, only five received negative scores - foreign aid (-60.4), welfare (-28.5), assistance to big cities (-23.4), space exploration (-9.0) and defense spending (-6.3)
If the people participating in the survey were to make federal budget decisions, those five programs presumably would be the only ones to see their spending slashed. The other 18 would get more money.
Those surveyed last year also wanted more government spending on: nonwelfare assistance to the poor (+53.8), fighting crime (+51.9), Social Security (+47.6), health programs (+46.3), protecting the environment (+45.9), drug rehabilitation (+43.5), highways and bridges (+29.9), solving problems of big cities (+24.1) and improving the condition of blacks (+21).
"The net numbers have always been positive, meaning they want to spend more on things. And the vast majority of them are things that are pretty good: education, health, highways," Smith said in an interview. "The average - when asked about specific programs - is pro-government spending and always has been. It's gone up and down as to how pro they are. The pro-spending edge is a little weaker now than it was at its peak."
Some changes in national priorities are generationally driven and the aging of baby boomers is an important factor as more and more retire.
"The retirees generally think things are about right. Pre-retirees are the group most likely to say (spending on Social Security) is too low. And the youngest generation is the least concerned about putting money into Social Security," Smith said.