A majority of Americans want the federal government to play a more active role in aspects of higher education, family life and medical leave, according to new surveys that took a novel approach to gathering public opinion.
Researchers with the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and Voice of the People surveyed more than 2,600 registered voters to gauge public support of the Biden administration's policy priorities that are being debated in Congress. Their findings, released this week, touched on four issues: higher education, child care and childhood nutrition, paid family and medical leave, and federal tax enforcement.
Unlike traditional polling, though, this survey used a policymaking simulation to brief respondents on all sides of an issue before asking whether they supported or opposed it. To ensure the survey is balanced, the briefing materials are reviewed by opponents and proponents of the issues. By using this method, the idea is to put voters in the shoes of policymakers, said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation.
"This enables us to ask questions about things that people may not have really thought about very much or might not have considered both sides of the issue, or they may not have some critical information," he said.
Sometimes with traditional polling there is large fluctuation in how people respond to a certain issue because of how questions are worded, Kull said.
"When people have thought about it more, they're not so reactive to those little variations, so it's a more reliable way of doing it," he said. "There are so many issues in Congress that people just don't have enough information about to give meaningful input on. So the whole idea is to expand the range of areas that the public can weigh in on."
While only one policy proposal garnered bipartisan support (increased funding for Pell Grants), there was majority approval for every policy among voters in congressional districts across the political spectrum, from the most conservative to the most liberal.
"There's this assumption that Congress reflects this division in different parts of the country, but even looking at very red to very blue districts — they basically agree," Kull said.
The survey of 2,613 registered voters was conducted between July 29 and Aug. 23. The margin of error was 1.9 percentage points.
Here are the findings from the four policy sections of the survey:
At the start of this section of the survey, voters were presented with three arguments for and three against the federal government offering more financial assistance for college education. Following each argument, voters were asked how convincing they found the reasoning to be.
Initially, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were in favor of more higher education funding. Democrats showed the strongest support at 90 percent, followed by independents at 62 percent, but only 35 percent of Republicans felt similarly.
Then voters were asked about the two specific proposals in the budget reconciliation plan: increasing the financial aid provided through the Pell Grant program and making community college tuition free for all students. Support for higher education funding increased following these more pointed questions, with seven in 10 voters favoring the proposal. Bipartisan support was only found for increasing Pell Grant funding, though, with just over half (53 percent) of Republicans in favor.
View the arguments for and against increasing financial aid for higher education with the policymaking simulation.
Child care and nutrition
Lower-income families on average spend 35 percent of their income on child care. A provision in the budget reconciliation bill would subsidize those costs so that families don't spend more than 7 percent of their income on child care. (Families of all incomes spend, on average, 10 percent on child care.)
The survey found that overall 63 percent of Americans were in favor of such a proposal. An overwhelming majority of Democrats (86 percent) as well as most independents (59 percent) were in favor. But six in 10 Republicans were opposed.
There was slightly more favorability across the political spectrum for providing very low-income families that have children up to $130 of credits a month during the summer to purchase groceries. Two-thirds of Americans backed this proposal, including 85 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans.
View the arguments for and against subsidizing child care and childhood nutrition with the policymaking simulation.
Paid family and medical leave
President Biden's American Families Plan calls for up to 12 weeks of family or medical leave per year, with two-thirds of that period being paid up to a maximum of $4,000.
The survey found 49 percent of voters were in favor of this proposal, including 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents. While only one-third of Republicans overall were supportive, this policy was viewed more favorably among young conservatives (56 percent) and non-white conservatives (50 percent).
View the arguments for and against funding paid family and medical leave with the policymaking simulation.
The American Families Plan also proposes raising the IRS budget $8 billion a year for 10 years to bolster tax enforcement on individuals with incomes higher than $400,000, update the technology used to detect tax evasion and require banks to help the IRS verify tax filers' information.
Two-thirds of Americans supported an increased IRS budget, including 88 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents and 46 percent of Republicans.
View the arguments for and against increasing the IRS budget with the policymaking simulation.