Poll Reveals Voters are Uninformed About Major Issues


What do voters truly understand about policy issues that have major impacts on society? In the final weeks of 2015, Just Facts commissioned a nationwide poll to scientifically determine this.

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While most polls focus on public opinion, this one measured voters’ knowledge of issues that have substantial consequences for Americans. The poll consisted of 23 questions about education, healthcare, taxes, government spending, global warming, Social Security, energy, hunger, pollution, and the national debt.

Overall, the majority of voters gave the correct answer to only six of the 23 questions. This indicates that many voters may be casting ballots based on false views of reality.

The highest levels of ignorance were found on questions related to tax burdens, child hunger, landfills, education spending, Social Security finances, and health insurance copayments. In these cases, less than 25% of voters provided the correct answer, and in one case, only 9% of voters did.

The poll also recorded voters’ age, sex, and political inclinations. This allows it to pinpoint segments of society that are misinformed about specific issues. The results show deep partisan and demographic divides, with different groups being more or less knowledgeable depending upon the question.

This is the fourth annual poll commissioned by Just Facts. This year, four new questions were added to address the issue of education, and the sample size was increased by 40% to achieve greater precision.

The poll was conducted by Conquest Communications Group, a professional polling firm located in Virginia. The responses were obtained through live telephone surveys of 700 likely voters across the continental United States on December 15–20, 2015. Likely voters are those who say they vote “every time there is an opportunity” or “in most elections.”

The margin of sampling error for all voters is plus or minus 3.8% with a 95% level of confidence. The margin of error for Republican voters is 6.2%, for Democratic voters 6.6%, for undecided voters 7.7%, for males 5.5%, for females 5.2%, for 35- to 64-year olds 5.6%, and for 65-plus-year olds 5.2%. The sample sizes of third-party voters and 18-to 34-year olds are too small to produce meaningful data.

The questions and results are as follows. 

Question 1: Relative to other nations, how do U.S. fourth graders rank in terms of their reading and math ability? Are they in the bottom 50% or in the top 50%?

Correct Answer: Top 50%. In international tests administered to students in dozens of nations, U.S. fourth graders rank in the top 15% of nations for both reading and math. Confusion about this may arise from the fact that the relative performance of U.S. students declines over time, and by the age of 15, they drop to 50% in reading and to the bottom 25% in math. Correct answer given by 35% of all voters, 38% of Democratic voters, 32% of Republican voters, 37% of undecided voters, 37% of males, 33% of females, 39% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 31% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 2: On average across the United States, how much do federal, state, and local governments spend per year to educate each classroom of public school students? Less or more than $150,000 per classroom per year?

Correct Answer: More than $150,000. The average cost to educate a classroom of public school students is about $280,000 per year. Correct answer given by 32% of all voters, 24% of Democratic voters, 40% of Republican voters, 34% of undecided voters, 41% of males, 24% of females, 33% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 31% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 3: What portion of 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. are unqualified for military service because of weak educational skills, poor physical fitness, illegal drug usage, medical conditions, or criminal records? More or less than half?

Correct Answer: More than half. According to various agencies within the Department of Defense, two-thirds to three-quarters of all 17- to 24-year-olds are unqualified for military service because of weak educational skills, poor physical fitness, illegal drug usage, medical conditions, or criminal records. Correct answer given by 41% of all voters, 41% of Democratic voters, 43% of Republican voters, 37% of undecided voters, 44% of males, 39% of females, 40% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 43% of 65-plus-year olds. 

Question 4: When conventional public schools are subject to school choice programs that allow students to leave for private or charter schools, do the children who remain in the public schools academically decline? 

Correct Answer: No. At least 21 high-quality studies have been performed on the academic outcomes of students who remain in public schools that are subject to school choice programs. All but one of the studies found neutral-to-positive results, and none of the studies found negative results. This is consistent with the theory that school choice stimulates competition that induces public schools to improve. Correct answer given by 38% of all voters, 45% of Democratic voters, 33% of Republican voters, 41% of undecided voters, 37% of males, 40% of females, 39% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 37% of 65-plus-year olds. 

Question 5: The average U.S. household spends about $26,000 per year on food, housing, and clothing combined. If we broke down all combined federal, state, and local taxes to a per household cost, do you think this would amount to more or less than an average of $26,000 per household per year?

Correct Answer: More than $26,000 per household per year. In 2014, federal, state and local governments collected a combined total of $4.7 trillion in taxes or an average of $38,317 for every household in the U.S. Correct answer given by 43% of all voters, 38% of Democratic voters, 51% of Republican voters, 36% of undecided voters, 45% of males, 40% of females, 48% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 37% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 6: On average, who would you say pays a greater portion of their income in federal taxes: The middle class or the upper 1% of income earners?

Correct Answer: The upper 1%. The Congressional Budget Office’s latest estimates of federal tax burdens show that households in the middle class pay an average federal tax rate of 12%, as compared to 33% for the top 1% of income earners. These tax rates account for nearly all taxes and income, unlike the incomplete and misleading tax rates often reported by media outlets and politicians. Correct answer given by 15% of all voters, 6% of Democratic voters, 23% of Republican voters, 13% of undecided voters, 20% of males, 11% of females, 17% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 14% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 7: Now, changing the subject from taxes to spending, suppose we broke down all government spending to a per-household cost. Do you think the combined spending of federal, state and local governments amounts to more or less than $40,000 per household per year?

Correct Answer: Government spending is more than $40,000 per household per year. In 2014, federal, state and local governments spent a combined total of $5.9 trillion or an average of $47,00 for every household in the U.S. For reference, the average U.S. household spends about $40,000 per year on food, housing, clothing, transportation, and healthcare. Correct answer given by 41% of all voters, 28% of Democratic voters, 51% of Republican voters, 44% of undecided voters, 44% of males, 37% of females, 44% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 37% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 8: Do you think the federal government spends more money on social programs, such as Medicare, education, and food stamps—or does the federal government spend more money on national defense, such as the Army, Navy, and missile defense? 

Correct Answer: Social programs. In 2014, 61% of federal spending was for social programs, and 19% was for national defense. Half a century ago, the converse was true, and 53% of federal spending was for national defense, while 21% was for social programs. Correct answer given by 45% of all voters, 21% of Democratic voters, 69% of Republican voters, 44% of undecided voters, 48% of males, 43% of females, 47% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 43% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 9: What about federal government debt? The average U.S. household owes about $108,000 in consumer debt, such as mortgages and credit cards. Thinking about all federal government debt broken down on a per-household basis, do you think federal debt amounts to more or less than $108,000 per U.S. household?

Correct Answer: More than $108,000. Federal debt is now $18.8 trillion or $151,000 for every household in the United States. Correct answer given by 71% of all voters, 59% of Democratic voters, 83% of Republican voters, 71% of undecided voters, 75% of males, 67% of females, 77% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 66% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 10: Over the past five years, which has grown at a faster rate, the U.S. economy or the national debt?

Correct Answer: The national debt. Over the past five years, the national debt grew by 35%, while the U.S. economy grew by 20%. Correct answer given by 83% of all voters, 63% of Democratic voters, 94% of Republican voters, 90% of undecided voters, 87% of males, 79% of females, 84% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 81% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 11: Would you say the earth is measurably warmer than it was 30 years ago?

Correct Answer: Yes. According to both satellite measurements and ground-level thermometers, the earth’s average temperature has increased by about 0.6 to 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years. This increase is greater than the range of measurement uncertainty. For a point of comparison, a temperature analysis of a glacier in Greenland found that it was about 22ºF colder during the last ice age than it is now. Correct answer given by 64% of all voters, 91% of Democratic voters, 40% of Republican voters, 65% of undecided voters, 59% of males, 70% of females, 64% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 65% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 12: Again, thinking about the whole planet, do you think the number and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms have generally increased over the past 30 years?

Correct Answer: No. Data published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that the number and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms is about the same as it was 30 years ago. Likewise, Christopher Landsea, a Ph.D. atmospheric scientist and hurricane specialist for NOAA, wrote in 2005, “All previous and current research in the area of hurricane variability has shown no reliable, long-term trend up in the frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones, either in the Atlantic or any other basin.” Additionally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2012: “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.” Correct answer given by 33% of all voters, 13% of Democratic voters, 54% of Republican voters, 29% of undecided voters, 41% of males, 25% of females, 34% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 32% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 13: Now, just thinking about the United States, in your opinion, is the air generally more polluted than it was 30 years ago?

Correct Answer: No. EPA data shows that ambient levels of criteria air pollutants have declined significantly over the past 30 years. The same holds true for emissions of hazardous air pollutants. Correct answer given by 48% of all voters, 39% of Democratic voters, 56% of Republican voters, 47% of undecided voters, 59% of males, 39% of females, 55% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 43% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 14: If the U.S. stopped recycling and buried all of its trash for the next 100 years in a single landfill that was 30 feet high, how much of the nation’s land area would this cover? Less than 1%, 1% to less than 5%, or more than 5%?

Correct Answer: Less than 1%. At the current U.S. population growth rate and the current per-person trash production rate, the landfill would cover 0.06% of the nation’s land area. More realistically, the actual area in use will be an order of magnitude smaller, because (1) the U.S. recycles, burns, or composts 46% of its trash; (2) landfills can be more than 200 feet high; and (3) after 30-50 years, landfills are often covered and used for purposes such as parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and airfields. Correct answer given by 9% of all voters, 6% of Democratic voters, 12% of Republican voters, 8% of undecided voters, 14% of males, 5% of females, 9% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 9% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 15: Without government subsidies, which of these technologies is least expensive for generating electricity? Wind turbines, solar panels, or natural gas power plants?

Correct Answer: Natural gas power plants. Determining the costs of electricity-generating technologies is complex, but data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that natural gas is considerably less expensive than wind, and wind is considerably less expensive than solar. Correct answer given by 43% of all voters, 28% of Democratic voters, 54% of Republican voters, 42% of undecided voters, 54% of males, 33% of females, 47% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 39% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 16: Without government subsidies, which of these fuels is least expensive for powering automobiles? Gasoline, ethanol, or biodiesel?

Correct Answer: Gasoline. As calculated with data from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Energy Information Administration, the unsubsidized cost for gasoline is significantly lower than that of ethanol and biodiesel. Correct answer given by 56% of all voters, 47% of Democratic voters, 67% of Republican voters, 50% of undecided voters, 65% of males, 48% of females, 56% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 55% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 17: Worldwide, which of these technologies generates the most electricity? Solar panels, natural gas power plants, coal power plants, or nuclear power plants?

Correct Answer: Coal power plants. Due to the low cost and widespread availability of coal, coal power plants produce about 39% of the world’s electricity, as compared to 21% for natural gas, 12% for nuclear, and 1% for solar. Correct answer given by 44% of all voters, 39% of Democratic voters, 51% of Republican voters, 40% of undecided voters, 58% of males, 31% of females, 41% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 45% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 18: On an average day, what portion of U.S. households with children have at least one child who experiences hunger? Less than 1%, 1% to 10%, or more than 10%?

Correct Answer: Less than 1%. Per the latest data from the USDA, on an average day, less than one quarter of one percent (0.23%) of households with children have a child who experiences hunger. Correct answer given by 13% of all voters, 6% of Democratic voters, 22% of Republican voters, 9% of undecided voters, 17% of males, 10% of females, 13% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 13% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 19: Do Social Security’s financial problems stem from politicians looting the program and spending the money on other programs?

Correct Answer: No. By law, all Social Security taxes and revenues can be used only for the Social Security program, and the federal government has never failed to abide by this law. What some call “looting” is actually a legal requirement (established in the Social Security of 1935) that all of the program’s surpluses be loaned to the federal government. The government is required to pay back this money with interest, and it has been doing so since 2010. Social Security’s financial problems stem from other factors. Correct answer given by 14% of all voters, 21% of Democratic voters, 9% of Republican voters, 10% of third-party voters, and 12% of undecided voters, 14% of males, 14% of females, 15% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 13% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 20: Some policymakers are proposing that individuals be allowed to save and invest some of their Social Security taxes in personal accounts instead of paying these taxes to the Social Security program. In your view, do you think such proposals generally improve or harm the finances of the Social Security program?

Correct Answer: Improve. As shown by analyses conducted by the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration and a bipartisan presidential commission, proposals to give Social Security an element of personal ownership generally strengthen the program’s finances. Although some tax revenues that would have gone to the program instead go to people’s personal retirement accounts, these tax revenues are more than offset by the savings of not paying these individuals full benefits. Correct answer given by 24% of all voters, 13% of Democratic voters, 38% of Republican voters, 19% of undecided voters, 29% of males, 21% of females, 31% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 18% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 21: In 1960, governments paid for 24% of all healthcare costs in the U.S. Do you think government now pays a greater portion or a lesser portion of all healthcare costs in the U.S.?

Correct Answer: A greater portion. Between 1960 and 2013, the portion of U.S. healthcare expenses paid by government increased from 24% to 48%. Correct answer given by 58% of all voters, 52% of Democratic voters, 62% of Republican voters, 64% of undecided voters, 65% of males, 52% of females, 59% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 58% of 65-plus-year olds.

Question 22: When health insurance copayments are high, people tend to spend less on healthcare. Does this reduced spending typically have a negative impact on their health?

Correct Answer: No. Multiple studies have shown that when copayments are high, people generally spend less money on their healthcare without negatively impacting their health. This is because when people directly pay for more of their healthcare bills, they are more likely to be responsible consumers and use only those services that actually benefit their health. An exception to this rule is the poorest 6% of the population, who do experience negative effects when copayments are increased. Correct answer given by 11% of all voters, 8% of Democratic voters, 13% of Republican voters, 10% of undecided voters, 15% of males, 8% of females, 12% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 10% of 65-plus-year olds. 

Question 23: In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” This law uses price controls to save money in the Medicare program. Do you think these price controls will affect Medicare patients’ access to care?

Correct Answer: Yes. As explained by Medicare’s actuaries, the price controls in the Affordable Care Act will cut Medicare prices for many medical services over the next three generations to “less than half of their level under the prior law.” The actuaries have been clear that this will likely cause “withdrawal of providers from the Medicare market” and “severe problems with beneficiary access to care.” Correct answer given by 62% of all voters, 35% of Democratic voters, 80% of Republican voters, 70% of undecided voters, 66% of males, 58% of females, 62% of 35- to 64-year olds, and 62% of 65-plus-year olds.

James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a nonprofit institute dedicated to researching publishing verifiable facts about public policy.

Also see,

Bill Nye’s Unscientific Tirade on Abortion

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