PRINCETON, NJ -- Three-quarters of Americans are satisfied with the work the federal government does in responding to natural disasters, and nearly as many applaud the government's efforts on national parks and open space. A majority also rate the government positively for its handling of homeland security, transportation, and the military and national defense. Americans are most likely to be dissatisfied with the government's handling of the nation's finances and poverty.
The results are based on a June 20-24 Gallup poll asking Americans to assess the federal government's performance for each of 19 functions it handles. While Americans are more dissatisfied than satisfied with most of the functions, there are key areas of strength for the government, notable at a time when Americans are so critical of the government in general.
In the case of natural disasters, the government, largely through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, has recently dealt with widespread damage in Oklahoma due to tornadoes and along the Eastern Seaboard due to Superstorm Sandy. President Obama's response to Sandy has generally been praised, including by New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Americans may be satisfied with the government's role in national parks and transportation because these are generally noncontroversial areas that require relatively limited government funding and attention. For example, the Department of Transportation and the Department of the Interior (which contains the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management) made up only a combined 3% of President Barack Obama's proposed 2013 federal budget.
The absence of a large-scale terrorist attack like the one that occurred on 9/11, and the thwarting of some other terrorist activity, could be the reason Americans are favorable to the government's work on homeland security and the military and national defense, even though there have been some acts of terrorism on U.S. soil since then. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security contains FEMA, so homeland security satisfaction may have benefited from this association.
At the other end of the spectrum, Americans are most dissatisfied with areas of government performance related to the economy and economic issues -- some of which affect the average American's household budget in the form of jobs, healthcare, and education. The still somewhat sluggish economy and ballooning federal debt are likely reasons Americans are mostly dissatisfied with the government's handling of the nation's finances and its efforts on job creation and economic growth, and labor and employment issues.
The public may be dissatisfied with efforts to deal with poverty, given that U.S. poverty rates have held steady or increased in recent decades, while median household incomes are declining.
Americans' frustration with government work on immigration may result from a lack of action on the issue. Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform to deal with the issue in 2007, but is currently working to pass legislation to address it this year.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the government's handling of healthcare may stem from the ongoing issues of increasing costs and relatively high numbers of uninsured, which the Obama administration and Congress sought to deal with in the 2010 Affordable Care Act now slowly being implemented. However, Americans are at best divided on the law, so another source of dissatisfaction with government's work on healthcare may be disagreement with the approach it took.
Satisfaction With Natural Disaster Response Recovered From Katrina Era
Gallup has asked the same question about government performance twice previously, in 2001 prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in 2005 shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Since 2005, Americans' views of the government's response to natural disasters have improved sharply, from 33% satisfaction to the current 75%. That is easily the most dramatic change in the last eight years, clearly due to the 2005 measurement's occurring just weeks after Katrina. There has also been a significant increase in Americans' satisfaction with energy policy, up 13 percentage points since 2005, and homeland security, up seven points.
However, for the most part, Americans are less satisfied with government performance in nearly all areas now than they were in 2001 and 2005, including an 18-point drop on labor and employment issues since 2005, and a 12-point drop in job creation and economic growth. Satisfaction with government handling of the nation's finances is down nine points from 2005 but a total of 20 points from 2001.
Measurements of public satisfaction are a form of feedback that the government should use to help inform its strategies and plans for solving problems. The 19 functions listed in this survey are horizontal ones, each of which has relevance to multiple departments and independent agencies. For example, response to natural disasters is not localized just to FEMA, because the Departments of Health and Human Services and Energy, among others, are also involved in disaster preparedness and response. The Obama administration has mentioned government reorganization as a goal, which may clarify the lines of accountability between government function and agency.
Americans may be negative toward the federal government in general, but they still see areas in which it is performing well. Despite recent scandals at the IRS and NSA, and Obama's approval rating in the mid-40% range, the administration could tout these satisfaction numbers as successes.
Americans' greatest dissatisfaction with the government largely centers on economic matters. The financial crisis and slow recovery along with the growing federal debt are likely factors in Americans' poorer assessment of the government's performance in a variety of areas compared with 2001 and 2005, when the economy was at least as strong if not stronger than now but also not recovering from a deep recession.
A more robust economic recovery thus could help Americans see the government overall in a better light, and bring greater tax revenue to help the nation's balance sheet. However, if the federal government -- in an effort to take better control of its finances -- cuts back on spending in specific areas, the level of services it provides could suffer, and that may have a negative impact on Americans' satisfaction. Currently, the government is operating under sequestration, and while the impact of those forced spending reductions have not been widely felt by the general population, they could be in the future if the government has fewer resources to devote to current areas of strength such as disaster response, homeland security, and national parks.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 20-24, 2013, with a random sample of 1,009 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by region. Landline and cell telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.