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.
In other findings:
— Now in second place for more spending, assistance to the poor has rebounded from its 10th place finish in 1996.
— After a first-place rank in 2004, spending on health programs slipped to sixth place in 2012.
— Halting crime was a top favorite for increased government spending from 1974 to 1988 and regained first place in 1993 and 1994. But after 1994, it dropped from +71.4 to +50.6 in 2002 — still a strong positive but the lowest for the category ever posted in the survey. In 2012, crime-fighting finished in third place at +51.6.
The General Social Survey is conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation. Data were collected between March and early September 2012 in face-to-face interviews with 1,974 randomly selected U.S. adults. The margin of sampling error varies for questions within the survey, but for most, it is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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