Summary of Findings

The public overwhelmingly supports the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding aid already approved by Congress. Going forward, however, as many Americans worry that the government will spend too much on hurricane relief as say it will spend too little. And while Katrina’s potential impact on the budget has become a major issue in Washington, there is much greater public concern hurricane assistance will not go to people who really need it.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted among 1,500 adults from Oct. 6-10, finds that 51% of Americans say their biggest concern about the government’s relief effort is that the money will not go to the needy, while 32% worry that the money will be wasted on unnecessary things. Just 6% say their biggest concern is that the relief effort will add too much to the budget deficit.

The survey finds growing public perceptions of economic inequality in the aftermath of Katrina. Nearly half (48%) believe that American society is divided between the “haves” and “have-nots.” That represents a 10-point rise since March 2005, with the increase coming across the economic spectrum.

But there has been a much smaller increase in the percentage of Americans who say they themselves fall into the “have-not” group ­ from 34% in March to 38% currently. A plurality of Americans (47%) continue to identify themselves as among the “haves.”

So far, there is no evidence that the crisis along the Gulf Coast has fundamentally changed long-term public attitudes on race, poverty and the role of government. But there has been a decided shift in views of the government’s priorities. Half of Americans now say it is more important for President Bush to focus on domestic policy, while a third says he should focus on the war on terrorism. The number citing domestic policy a more important priority has declined a bit since the days immediately after the hurricane (from 56% to 50%), but is still much higher than it had been since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In addition, the public by more than three-to-one (64%-20%) believes it is more important for Bush to focus on domestic policy than on foreign policy generally. This represents a significant shift since January, when a smaller majority (53%) felt Bush should focus greater attention on domestic than foreign policy.

Dem Advantage on Deficit

The public generally continues to view deficit reduction as a key priority, although it is a relatively minor concern when compared with other potential consequences of the hurricane relief effort. About four-in-ten (42%) say that reducing the federal budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress, about the same number that expressed this view in March (39%).

Democrats continue to view deficit reduction as a more important priority than do Republicans. This is particularly the case for conservative and moderate Democrats (51% top priority). In recent years, reducing the deficit has rated as a much higher priority for Democrats than Republicans; in the 1990s, by contrast, Republicans rated the deficit as the higher priority.

Democrats hold a sizable advantage as the party better able to reduce the deficit. Nearly half of the public (47%) says the Democratic Party could do a better job on this issue, compared with just 29% who choose the Republican Party. There is a high degree of partisanship in opinions on which party could do better in cutting the deficit. But just half of moderate and liberal Republicans feel the GOP would do better in reducing the deficit.

Where to Cut?

The public is divided over how best to finance the government’s hurricane rebuilding and recovery efforts. When the prospect of reducing spending on the war in Iraq is mentioned, a plurality (31%) chooses that option, while 20% favor cutting domestic spending.

But these differences narrow when the former option for financing hurricane relief is described as reducing “defense and military spending,” rather than reducing funding “for the war in Iraq.” In this version of the question, about as many favor cutting back on domestic spending as support reducing defense and military spending (31% vs. 28%). In both versions of the question, raising taxes and increasing the budget deficit are viewed as less preferable options for financing hurricane relief.

Economic Gloom, But Jobs Picture Better

Public evaluations of the national economic conditions, if anything, have become a bit more negative. Just 25% of Americans see the national economy as excellent or good, while 74% say the economy is only fair (45%) or poor (29%). Last month, 31% expressed a positive view of the national economy.

However, people are somewhat less pessimistic in their expectations for the economy over the next year than they were in September. The number saying they expect the economy to get worse fell slightly (from 37% to 32%); a plurality predicts that the economy will remain about the same (45%).

A majority of Americans (56%) say that jobs are difficult to find in their communities, while 36% report there are plenty of jobs in their community. These assessments are a bit more positive than May 2005 when just three in ten said that plenty of jobs were available in their community. The job situation is looking better among those with lower incomes; 63% of those earning less than $30,000 say jobs are hard to find, down from 75% in May.