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Views of Deficit Depend on Framing: Analysis

Michael Rainey
·2 min read

A progressive group aligned with the Democratic Party released a report this week that explores Americans’ attitudes toward the budget deficit and the national debt. Analysts at Data for Progress found that voter support for deficit spending can vary depending on how it is framed – an insight that may play a role in the political and communications battle to come over additional government spending on coronavirus relief and, should Joe Biden win the election, potentially a whole host of new federal initiatives, from public investment in green energy to increased support for housing and health care.

In a previous report, researchers found that “when deficit-spending is anchored to a promise of immediate, material benefits, voters become receptive to the idea.” In other words, Americans are more likely to support deficit spending if the money is used on things that clearly benefit them such as infrastructure, health care and schools.

Similarly, telling people that more deficit-fueled spending is necessary to help people who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus produces increased support for the idea, with a majority expressing support.

In their new report, the analysts used a survey to test specific messages that frame deficit spending in different ways and found that most people support such spending if it’s tied to long-term economic growth (“To put our financial house in order, we need to invest money in the American people. In the short term, this may mean increasing the debt but in the long term these investments will pay for themselves by growing the economy and creating jobs”) and to help needy fellow citizens (“To help Americans in need it’s okay if we increase the national debt in the short term”).

On the other hand, a message focusing on the hypocrisy of politicians who complain about the deficit while proving tax breaks for the rich (“Concern about the national debt is hypocritical. Whenever politicians need money for a war or a tax break for the rich, there’s money to be had. We should use deficit spending to help the working and middle class instead”) was less effective, with most respondents choosing an anti-deficit message (“The government needs to balance its books the way a household would. If our national debt gets too large we all leave an unaffordable burden of debt to our children”).

Voters are still divided: Not surprisingly, there is a strong partisan difference in attitudes on all framing messages, with a majority of Republicans expressing opposition to deficit spending across different messages (linking deficit spending to increased economic growth is an exception). Democrats support all framing messages, though to varying degrees.

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