November 27, 2019 3:21PM

Voters Like Benefits But Don’t Like Paying for Them

A banner headline in the (paper) Washington Post today reports:

Poll: Americans like Green New Deal's goals, balk at cost

Funny, that. When you ask Americans if they support a proposal that would "create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; [and secure] clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; a sustainable environment; and justice and equity" — they approve!

But when you tell them that it might "increase federal spending by trillions of dollars"—gee, ya think?—support collapses:

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This is not a new phenomenon, but it's good to see leading pollsters such as the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the National Opinion Research Center (which conducted the poll) picking up on the point. Cato's director of polling, Emily Ekins, has found similar results:

The Cato 2018 Health Care Survey...first replicated the results from myriad other surveys finding a majority (65%) of Americans favor regulations that prohibit insurance companies from refusing to cover, or charging higher premiums to, people with pre-existing conditions, while 32% oppose. However, support plummets when Americans are faced with likely consequences of these regulations.

The new Cato 2018 Paid Leave Survey of 1,700 adults finds that nearly three-fourths (74%) of Americans support a new federal government program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents or to people to deal with their own or a family member's serious medical condition.... However, majorities of Americans would oppose establishing a federal paid leave program if it cost them $450 a year in higher taxes.

Advocates often present policymakers with polls that show popular support for some proposed government program -- the Green New Deal, paid family leave, child care, free college, etc. But those polls never seem to point out the costs of the free service. When a poll does note costs, support tends to drop by a lot.

Note that even this Post-Kaiser poll mentions the large increase in federal spending, but doesn't point out that federal spending has to be paid for with taxes. In polls about "larger government with more services," there's evidence that if you remind respondents that "more services" means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer "smaller government with fewer services" rises by about 9 points. So if Post-Kaiser had also asked respondents whether they would support the Green New Deal if it meant substantially higher taxes, support would have fallen further below 30 percent.

Any policymaker trying to ascertain what voters want should remember to look at both sides of the ledger: what they say they want in theory, and what they're willing to give up to get that benefit.