Poll on Government Shows its Parts are Greater than the Whole

The Pew Center for the People & The Press released their “trust in government” poll (Oct. 9-13; 1,504 US adults) during the past week, and the results cause analysts to question what the conclusions really mean.

According to the Pew data, people’s trust in the US government “to do what is right just about always or most of the time” has fallen to tie an all-time low of 19 percent, and those who say they are angry with the government has risen to a record high of 30 percent, exceeding the 26 percent barrier recorded for this same question in late September.

But when asked their feelings about the individual government agencies only one, the Internal Revenue Service, draws negative ratings. Federal employees are well thought of, too. The percentage of respondents expressing a favorable view of government workers reached 62 percent in this poll.

To review, taken as a whole the government is poorly viewed but its parts are rated positively, and the people implementing the programs well liked. For example, the Center for Disease Control draws the best reviews, scoring a 75:14 percent favorable to unfavorable ratio. NASA is a close second, registering 73:15 percent positive to negative. Next, and somewhat surprisingly so, is the Department of Defense (72:23 percent). Following are the Veterans Administration (68:25 percent), Department of Homeland Security (66:30 percent), and the Food & Drug Administration (65:29 percent).

As mentioned previously, it is the IRS that scores upside down ratings, largely due to a vast amount of negative publicity surrounding the agency in the past few months. According to these respondents, 44 percent have a positive view of the IRS as opposed to 51 percent who express a negative opinion. But, even this ratio is not particularly bad. More surprisingly, the National Security Agency, regularly in the news for conducting extensive monitoring of the citizenry still enjoys a respectable 54:35 percent positive ratio. Though the NSA ratio is well into positive territory, it is the second-worst recorded score, ahead of only the Department of Education (53:42 percent), among those agencies and departments scoring favorable numbers.

But why such a huge disconnect? The poor “trust in government” numbers largely revolve around the continuing dismal opinion of Congress. In this poll, as has been the case for some time, more than three times as many respondents (73 percent versus 23 percent) say they view the Congress negatively. And, those participating in the poll blame the elected officials and not the institution itself. Fifty-eight percent agreed with the statement that “the political system can work fine, it’s the members of Congress that are the problem.” Conversely, only 32 percent identified with the phrase that “most members of Congress have good intentions, it’s the political system that is broken.”

Many views of the individual government agencies have partisan overtones. The IRS is negatively viewed because Republicans have such a poor opinion of the agency. Only 23 percent of self-identified Republicans hold positive feelings toward the IRS, versus 65 percent of Democrats. A similar ratio exists in grading public employees; 79 percent of Democrats view the individuals comprising the federal workforce in a positive light, against 46 percent of Republicans who say they feel that way. Among Independents, 60 percent expressed a favorable opinion of government employees.

The biggest partisan spread was in relation to the Department of Health & Human Services. In this instance, 45 percent of Republicans view HHS favorably, as opposed to 78 percent of Democrats who hold that same opinion, for a 33 percent gap.

Where respondents from the two parties virtually agree relates to their views about NASA (Republicans 76 percent favorable; Democrats 74 percent), and the Department of Defens (Republicans 77 percent positive; Democrats also 77 percent). Interestingly, the representative samples of both Democrats and Republicans also voiced similar opinions about Congress: 23 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats viewed the political body favorably.

With such a disparity in viewing the entirety of government versus its parts, drawing a significant conclusion – other than Congress is perceived so negatively – becomes difficult. What effect these opinions may have about the upcoming 2014 election is also unknown at this time.

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