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A Different Take on How the Public Thinks about the Economy, Budget

by Scott Bittle

Monday, March 21st, 2011

How does the public really grapple with the issues surrounding the economy and the federal budget? Two recent presentations from Public Agenda suggest the public is looking at these problems very differently than policymakers or the media.

At the Consumer Federation of America’s annual assembly last week, research director Jon Rochkind talked about “The Great Divide,” focusing on one of the major concerns of those who are struggling economically: higher education. (You can see it in Powerpoint or PDF format).

In our “Slip-Sliding Away” report, we found four in 10 Americans say they’re struggling “a lot” financially in the wake of the Great Recession. Most of the debate among policymakers and the media is about the short-term issues: how do we create jobs, how do we spur business. Yet while the economically struggling say they’re having trouble with short-term issues like paying their rent or mortgage, when asked what would help the most, their top choice was something quite different: “making higher education more affordable.”

Previous Public Agenda research shows that the public’s belief that a college education is necessary to get ahead is rising, even as they’re more and more worried that it’s financially out of reach. And we’ve also found the biggest factor keeping students from finishing college isn’t so much paying tuition, but the need to juggle work, school and family obligations.

The other presentation, “You Can’t Get There From Here,” (also in Powerpoint and PDF) is on another challenge: the federal deficit and national debt. Policymakers often throw up their hands at surveys that show the public with conflicting and even contradictory views on our fiscal problems.

But in our presentation at the Human Face of the Fiscal Crisis session sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, we argue those gaps can be bridged with a better understanding of how the public thinks about complicated issues.

The public has a “Learning Curve” on problems, from initial “consciousness raising” to “working through” the alternatives and finally to resolution. When public opinion surveys show conflicting results, it’s usually because the public is still learning about a problem, and still figuring out what they want to do about it. And too often, the debate among policymakers and experts is “too wonky to work,” leaving the public behind.

The public can grapple with complicated issues, but they need a little help: a few key facts, viable options, and a focus on priorities. (You can find out more about ways to actually give people that help in Toward Wiser Public Judgment, the new book by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich and our president, Will Friedman).

Much of the budget debate is focused on brokering a deal in Washington – but the real challenge for policymakers on the deficit is whether they can make a deal that holds up both inside and outside the Beltway. Unless they do that, whatever deal that gets set won’t survive.


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