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Friday, May 3, 2013

Few Signs Yet That Sequestration Has Affected Average American

The sequestration that went into effect on March 1 does not appear to be a major issue for most Americans. At least, not according to the available evidence measuring public attitudes that I have seen.

We have tracked a set of two questions four times since March 1 -- one asking if the sequestration has been a good thing or a bad thing for the country and another asking the same question about “you personally.” Both questions include the stated alternative: “...or don’t you know enough to say?” 

There has been remarkably little change over time on these two questions. As you’ll see from the two graphs below, all three alternatives essentially straight line.

Our headline is that a majority of Americans still say they can’t judge the impact of sequestration on either the country or on themselves personally, particularly the latter. Another approch would be to focus on the negative side:   30% of Americans say sequestration has been bad for the country, and 24% say it has been bad for themselves personally. Those are clearly minority numbers, particularly so if you subtract the 17% and 11% respectively who say that sequestration has been a good thing for the country and for themselves. 
Hard to make a case from these numbers that Americans have perceived sequestration as a deadly blow to the nation or to themselves. (Keep in mind that the latest update on these numbers came from an April 29-30 survey, conducted after the news focus on delays in air traffic blamed on air traffic controller furloughs imposed by the FAA as a result of sequestration.)  
We also have seen no decline in economic confidence in the country. As a matter of fact, our Economic Confidence Index monthly average for April was -13, better than -16 in March, and back to where it was in February. And as I write this on Friday, May 3rd, our 3-day economic confidence index has tied its high for the year. No major hit there.

Our analysis also shows that federal government employees' views that their employer is letting people go have improved -- after taking a mild hit in March. We interpreted this as indicating that federal employees thought there might be a impact of sequestration in March, but by April didn’t see it materializing. (Although federal employees still report much more negative views than private sector employees.)
I should make note of the results of a New York Times/CBS News poll question that was reported this week. The question was phased: “As you may know, automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs are in effect because President Obama and Republicans in Congress could not agree on a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit. These automatic spending cuts are commonly referred to as the Sequester. Do you think these cuts will help the economy, hurt the economy, or will they not have much effect on the economy one way or the other?" The results showed 46% said “will hurt,” 10% said “will help,” 35% said they will not have much effect, and 9% said they didn’t know.

This question shows a 16-percentage-point higher “negative” response on the impact of the sequester on the country than the Gallup question. But there are differences in the question phrasing. For one thing, the New York Times/CBS News question explicitly mentions that the sequester resulted from a failure of the president and Congress to agree on a plan to reduce the deficit.  This is in and of itself adds a negative tone to the question -- since Americans want their elected officials to cooperate.  This phrasing also reminds people that the deficit was not reduced. 

Most importantly, the question uses the verb “will,” making this a projective question rather than an assessment of what has happened so far. In fact when we asked in late February if the economy will get worse if the budget sequestration goes into effect, we found 56% saying yes. So, I think it is reasonable that people may still project a negative impact, but that they simply don’t see that negative impact yet.
In fact, the New York Times/CBS News poll followed the first question outlined above with a question that was not projective, but instead contemporaneous. This question asked about personal impact: "Have you personally been affected by the spending cuts in the Sequester, or not?" If yes: "Have you been affected a great deal, or only somewhat?" The results showed 27% said they had been affected (8% a great deal, 19% only somewhat) while 69% said they had not.  This result is in line with the 24% “bad thing for you personally” that our polling found. (This question didn’t specify whether "affected" meant in a negative way, but presumably the majority of those saying "yes" did assume the question was asking about a negative impact.) 

Bottom line:  While Americans may still feel that sequestration will have negative effects for the country and themselves in the future, most in the U.S. don’t seem to see that effect so far. 


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