Thursday, August 5th, 2010 | Francie Grace
Keeping score on the federal budget is more complicated than it needs to be. Take today's official report on the status of the Medicare and Social Security programs. There's positive news, in that Medicare's financial situation is projected to improve as a result of the new health care plan. There's slightly worse short-term news for Social Security. And there's continuing bad news, in that the long-term outlook of both programs remains troubling.
Understanding the relationship between the federal budget and government policy is difficult even for full-time budget wonks, and for the rest of us, it's almost impossible. The biggest problem isn't that we can't get to the right information, it's just that the information isn't easy to use, and we have a hard time visualizing the context of budget decisions.
Solutions are, however, at hand. Choosing Our Fiscal Future has rolled out a new iPhone app, which delivers news, tweets, video and more about the national debt crisis. And OurFiscalFuture.org now has the U.S. Visual Budget tool, a web-based application which helps the numbers make sense. With this application you can:
- Compare aspects of the budget to one another from branches of government to functions like energy or international affairs
- Examine changes over time right now, going back to the Kennedy administration, but soon we'll be able to take you all the way back to George Washington
- See what spending decisions were made in what sort of political climate by House, Senate, or Presidential party
- See numbers in real dollars, in nominal dollars, or as a percentage of GDP, and print any chart that you create for use elsewhere
Try out the Visual Budget Tool at http://www.ourfiscalfuture.org/visualbudget.html, start thinking about our options, and let us know what you think: it's all of our futures that are at stake.
Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 | Francie Grace
As a kid, I was always in awe of Marie Curie: just imagine, a woman and a world-renowned scientist, wife and mother. Despite that early imprint, I found glasses and microscopes awfully hard to use at the same time, and accordingly focused my talents in the world of words, which brings me here to you today.
Sally Ride was another such role model for many, so it's kind of cool to see America's first woman in space as the name on the door and the guiding force behind the Sally Ride Science Academy. With the National Science Foundation predicting that 80 percent of the next decade's jobs will require math and science skills, Ride was on hand in D.C. last week as a hundred elementary school teachers from across the nation gathered at the Academy to learn more about strategies for getting today's kids excited about science. "When I was growing up ... science was cool," says the 59-year-old Ride. "We need to make science cool again."
A lot of educators are working on this, too among the notables online are Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (which got a visit from Bill Gates) and many of the reformers active in #edchat discussions on Twitter and elsewhere in social media but unlike those pathfinders, most of Ride's students are teachers.
The success of such efforts depends very much on public attitudes towards math and science and opinions on the relative importance of the need to nurture the next generation of tech wizards and workers. Public Agenda's been very active in this area, both in research on public attitudes to lay the groundwork for discussion, and in public engagement projects talking to community leaders, parents and students.
Our public opinion study, Are We Beginning To See The Light?, found strong majorities who said there will be more jobs and college opportunities for students with science and math skills. But 52 percent of parents said the math and science education their own children are getting is "fine as is," and few survey participants, including non-parents, said it's essential for students to understand advanced sciences like physics (28 percent) or advanced math like calculus (26 percent).
For more on this subject, see: Getting Ready For 21st Century Careers, our Choicework discussion guide for citizens to consider the issues and take action in their own communities; Opportunity Knocks: Closing the Gaps between Leaders and the Public on Math, Science, & Technology Education; Out Before the Game Begins: Hispanic Leaders Talk About What's Needed to Bring More Hispanic Youngsters Into Science, Technology and Math Professions; and A Time to Learn, A Time to Grow: California Parents Talk About Summertime and Summer Programs.
Monday, August 2nd, 2010 | Francie Grace
"If we don't think we're going to have to reinvent ourselves, we are delusional." That's Liz Grobsmith, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northern Arizona University, in an Inside Higher Ed interview at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities "Re-Imagining Undergraduate Education" conference last week in Chicago.
Two- and 4-year colleges across the country are facing the challenge of super-tight budgets and the need to operate more efficiently while changing the way things are done to meet the needs of today's students. There's also the fast-expanding world of for-profit institutions, which are under increased government scrutiny as they scramble to attract the hard-earned dollars of price-sensitive prospective students, and have been known to use tactics such as hard-hitting advertisements which are less likely to be associated with traditional bastions of higher learning.
Speaking at the AASCU meeting, George Mehaffy, the organization's VP for leadership and change, played a video of one well-known for-profit commercial and then laid it on the line to his audience: college provosts from across the country. This, said Mehaffy, is the time "to get serious about the process of change in American higher education. It is important that we resolve to make substantive changes -- major changes, not changes around the margins -- and that we do so with a fierce sense of urgency."
The AASCU plans a year-long process of working with campus leaders to identify a set of initiatives for institution-wide and possibly proposals for national change. Mehaffy, known for his interest in civic engagement, was effective in sparking debate among the academics on hand (and online check out the comments on Inside Higher Ed), who he has exhorted to work together for change.
We've been working on that ourselves here at Public Agenda, where we're using the tools of public engagement and public opinion research to improve access to higher education. To learn more about this, check out Changing the Conversation About Productivity: Strategies for Engaging Faculty and Institutional Leaders, a report by our Public Engagement team following up on our earlier report, Campus Commons: What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think About Controlling College Costs. We also recommend Squeeze Play, our study on public opinion about college costs and the college experience; Sharing the Dream, research on efforts to improve outcomes for community college students; and our series of reports on obstacles to college completion, Can I Get A Little Advice Here? and With Their Whole Lives Ahead Of Them.
Thursday, July 29th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The teeth of Arizona's new immigration law were blocked in court this week, but the debate is undoubtedly going to continue. Arizona is already appealing the decision, as other states considering similar laws watch how the case progresses.
Given the passions aroused in the Arizona debate and the recurring fights about immigration over the last few years it's fair to wonder about how this plays out in day-to-day interactions. Overall, immigrants themselves paint a picture of a country where they fit in well. In Public Agenda's survey of immigrants, A Place to Call Home, we found most immigrants said they felt comfortable in the United States pretty quickly.
More than three-quarters (77 percent) say that it takes fewer than five years to "feel comfortable here and part of the community," and nearly half (47 percent) said it took fewer than two. Seven in 10 say they'd do it all over again if they had the chance.
Such easy comfort with their adopted home comes despite some formidable obstacles. Just more than three quarters (76 percent) say that they came to the United States with "very little money," and only 20 percent say they had "a good amount of money to get started." Some 45 percent say that they came to this country not speaking any English at all, an increase of 10 points since 2002.
There are some indications, however, that when it comes to being "comfortable" in communities, other immigrants play a critical role. Compared to 2002, more immigrants say that they spend time with people from their birth country and have closer ties there. Half of the immigrants we surveyed (51 percent) say they spend "a lot" of time with people from their birth country, a jump of 14 points from 2002.
And when it comes to discrimination, most immigrants say it exists, but most also say they don't run into it personally. More than six in 10 immigrants say there's some discrimination against immigrants in the United States today, and one in five say there's a great deal of discrimination. But only 9 percent of immigrants say that they have personally experienced a great deal of discrimination, with another 16 percent reporting that they experienced "some." And while Mexican immigrants are more likely to say there's a great deal of discrimination against immigrants, they're no more likely to say they've experienced it personally.
Thursday, July 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The drive for common core education standards is gaining steam, with 26 states and the District of Columbia already signed up. Public Agenda's research has found Americans like the idea of standards but low standards are not their most pressing concern about schools.
More states are expected to sign up for the standards in English and math, which are a key part of the Obama administration's "race to the top" program and also have strong backing from the nation's governors and chief school officers. But the idea still causes intense debate among educators and others.
In our research, Public Agenda has consistently found that the public supports the idea of standards, and has for some time. In our most recent look at this, our "Are We Beginning to See the Light?" survey on math and science education, strong majorities of both parents and the public said establishing a national curriculum would help improve math education (about half of both groups) said it would help "a lot."
It's also important to note that curriculum and standards are not what's bothering parents and the public most about schools. When participants in our math and science education survey were asked about the most pressing problem facing local high schools, some 63 percent of parents and 56 percent of the public cited "social problems and kids who misbehave." Only about three in 10 cited "low academic standards and outdated curricula."
National standards may well be a major step forward for improving American schools but the public sees safe and orderly schools as a pressing concern, and that deserves to be addressed as well.
Editor's note: This post has been edited to correct the number of states that have adopted the common core standards; as of July 23, the count is 26 states and the District of Columbia.
Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
For the first time, the Pew Research Center survey reports reducing the deficit is a higher priority than spending to stimulate the economy but that may say more about public attitudes toward the stimulus than it does about the deficit.
As recently as February, the Pew survey found the public evenly split on reducing the deficit versus spending more to help the economy (47 percent each). Now the deficit comes out ahead, 51 percent to 40 percent.
Reducing the deficit also beats out cutting taxes by a similar margin (51 percent to 41 percent).
Yet as we've noted before, surveys show the economy consistently beats out the deficit (and everything else for that matter) as the public's biggest concern. So what's the deal? We think the answer lies in the other big takeaway in this survey, headlined "Gov't Economic Policies Seen as Boon for Banks and Big Business, Not Middle Class or Poor." As Pew puts it:
The public sees clear winners and losers from the economic policies the government has implemented since the recession of 2008. Most Americans say these policies have helped large banks, large corporations and the wealthy, while providing little or no help for the poor, the middle class or small businesses.
Strong majorities say the government has done a "great deal" or a "fair amount" to help banks (74 percent), large corporations (70 percent) and the wealthy (57 percent). And majorities also say that the government has helped other groups "not too much" or "not at all", like small business (68 percent), middle-class people (68 percent) and poor people (64 percent).
Add to that the fact that relatively few people surveyed by Pew say they've seen direct effects from the stimulus. Two-thirds say it's increased the budget deficit, but only 43 percent say they believe it has led to improvements in roads, bridges and other infrastructure in their area. A mere one-third say the stimulus helped keep unemployment from getting even worse, and 29 percent say it helped state and local governments avoid layoffs and budget cuts.
Economists can and do argue that this isn't an either/or choice; that the nation can both spend more now to push the economy and make progress on its long-term budget problems. Given perceptions like this, however, it's no surprise that the public is skeptical.
Thursday, July 15th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The nation's governors vowed this week to tackle America's dismal college completion rate and Public Agenda's work points to some of the hurdles and possible solutions in getting more students across the finish line.
At the National Governors' Association conference, the organization unveiled "Complete to Compete," a new effort to build common metrics and develop "best practices" for states to improve completion rates. Right now, only 20 percent of students at two-year colleges finish in three years, and 40 percent of those at four-year schools finish in six years.
One thing Public Agenda's research shows pretty clearly is that many of the common views about why students don't finish college don't hold up. The image of the college student for many people is still the full-timer who's supported by their parents. But in fact, our "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them" survey finds that most students leave college because they're working to support themselves and attend school at the same time. Students who drop out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills (54 percent to 31 percent).
And what do students say would help? Flexibility. Eight in 10 young adults we surveyed who did not complete college supported making it possible for part-time students to be eligible for more financial aid and offering more courses in the evening and on weekends, to fit around their work schedules.
But college completion touches on a host of challenges about how higher education could operate better. Public Agenda is currently working in Texas and Arizona to help state leaders engage such critical stakeholders as college students, presidents and faculty as part of the Lumina Foundation's efforts to enhance higher education productivity in order to increase completion while controlling costs.
Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
There's been a lot written in the media and the blogosphere about surveys on whether the public is more worried about the economy or the federal deficit and most of what's written only sees half the story.
Public concern about the deficit is rising, some argue. But jobs are more important, others say. Both are true. The distinction that's often being missed is between the public's short-term and long-term concerns.
There's no question the economy is a much higher priority than the national debt and the budget deficit for the public right now. Let's take, for example, the CBS News/New York Times poll released yesterday. A plurality (38 percent) say the economy and jobs are the most important problem facing the country today, followed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (13 percent), heath care (6 percent), the budget deficit/national debt (5 percent) and the Gulf oil spill (also 5 percent).
Other surveys have found similar results, and that's not surprising. In April, Gallup found one in five Americans fear losing their job over the next year.
But the public also thinks the deficit could be the most important problem in the future. When Gallup asked what the most important problem might be 25 years from now, the most popular answer given was the federal budget deficit (14 percent), closely followed by the economy and the environment (both 11 percent). That's the first time the deficit has led the list, and the first time it's drawn more than 5 percent responses, according to Gallup.
Among policymakers, of course, the debate over the past several weeks has been whether the federal government needs to keep spending to stimulate the economy or should start pulling back to control the deficit. Both sides are treating it as an either-or choice, and citing surveys to prove their point.
Yet a number of economists and policymakers have argued that there's no contradiction between the two choices, and that we could take steps to control the long-term fiscal problem while continuing a stimulus plan now. The surveys do show that there's a difference in the public's perception of the biggest problem now (the economy) and what could be the biggest problem in the future, our unsustainable federal budget. Both of those problems are very real and the fact that the public sees both of them as real could be a huge asset for policymakers as they grapple with solutions.
Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
Facts are stubborn things, John Adams once declared. But so, apparently, are people.
There's been a lot of attention this week to research suggesting, as the Boston Globe put it, that "facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite." Studies show people with strong partisan views not only reject conflicting information but are likely to hold onto their misconceptions even more strongly. (Here's a roundup of commentary on this point).
This research isn't new, but one reason why it may resonate is the concern among many commentators that people are more prone to getting their information from sources that fit their preconceptions the quality Stephen Colbert famously defined as "truthiness." Even setting that aside, surveys continue to show wide gaps in how Republicans and Democrats perceive problems. That includes our own Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index, which found Republicans getting significantly more anxious about global affairs, even as Democrats' belief that the U.S. was "on the right track" jumped 41 points.
So is it hopeless to even try to give people authenticated facts and balanced information to consider as they make decisions in politics? Should journalists and good government groups who try to promote better understanding of issues just throw in the towel?
First off, not everyone is a political partisan, and even those with strong political views may not hold them on every subject. Most Americans aren't up to speed on every problem facing the nation. How could they be? There's a flood of information out there, but only so much time in the day to keep up with the topics you're interested in, much less everything else.
Secondly, clearly people do change their minds as they get more information. Surveys show this time and again: on equal opportunity for women, on gay rights, on race relations, the war in Iraq, even offshore drilling, there have been huge shifts in public opinion as people have absorbed new ideas and had time to think about them. Sometimes it happens quickly; more often the process can take time, years or even decades. But there's no doubt that it happens.
Friday, July 9th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
This week's triple-digit heat wave has raised both temperatures and hopes among climate activists that this can move public opinion about global warming just as climate skeptics grasped onto last winter's "snowpocalypse" as a talking point. From our point of view, what policymakers and activists really need is a better reading on the public, not a better reading on the thermometer.
When it comes to complicated problems, like energy and climate, public thinking goes through a "learning curve." The learning curve runs through several stages, from initially learning about an issue to "working through" the different alternatives and finally to a resolution, according to Public Agenda's founder, Dan Yankelovich. This can be a long process, and there are a lot of potential hurdles that can block progress. Scientists and policymakers, in particular, often believe that more information is the answer, but information is only one element in public thinking.
The hardest part of this process is the middle stage of "working through," where the public weighs a particular problem against other priorities, and various options to solving it against each other. This takes time, and there are a lot of potential roadblocks, like wishful thinking, mistrust, a lack of urgency, and a lack of clear alternatives.
On energy, the public is certainly wrestling with a lack of knowledge, but the question of whether climate change is real or not is only a piece of that puzzle. Four in 10 Americans can't name a fossil fuel, and even more can't name a renewable energy source. People overestimate the amount of oil we have domestically and the amount of energy we get from renewables.
So even if Americans believe we need to overhaul our energy policy and surveys show they do they're hampered in dealing with the options to making that change happen. The decisions needed to change our energy mix require serious tradeoffs based on economics, technology and politics. Without key facts and clear choices, the public can't judge what's realistic and what's not, and that's bound to hamper constructive, practical decision making.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of whether heat waves actually change the public's sense of urgency on global warming. But even if a hot spell made the problem more urgent for the public, without better ways of working through the choices, people could still be lukewarm when it comes to buying into practical solutions.