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Friday, April 1, 2011

What Americans Know

Public deliberation depends on public knowledge. As we point out in our chapter on public opinion, knowledge of politics is spotty at best.

Let's start with international assistance. Sixty percent of people we questioned say they'd like to put foreign aid on the chopping block. So would that make a dent in the deficit?

No - but try telling that to the American public. According to the poll, on average, Americans estimate that foreign aid takes up 10 percent of the federal budget, and one in five think it represents about 30 percent of the money the government spends. But the actual figure is closer to one percent, according to data from the Office of Management and Budget from the 2010 fiscal year's $3.5 trillion budget.

New data from the Pew Research Center confirm this picture:

About seven-in-ten know that Hillary Clinton currently serves as U.S. secretary of state (73%) and that Moammar Gadhafi is the leader of Libya (71%). An even higher percentage (80%) knows that that the “No Child Left Behind” law deals with education policy.

Yet Americans continue to struggle with questions about Congress and its leaders. Just 38% correctly say that Republicans hold a majority of seats in the House – and not in the Senate or the full Congress. Shortly after the midterm elections in November, slightly more (46%) knew that the Republicans had a majority only in the House.

And only about four-in-ten (43%) are able to correctly identify John Boehner as House speaker; 19% say incorrectly that Nancy Pelosi is still speaker of the House. In November, shortly after the GOP won the House, 38% named Boehner as the presumptive speaker and 13% named Pelosi.

The latest News IQ Quiz, conducted Mar. 17-20 among 1004 adults, also finds that many Americans have a hard time answering detailed questions about U.S. government spending. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) correctly say that the federal government spends more on Medicare than on scientific research, education or on interest on the national debt. Slightly more (36%) say that interest on the debt is the greater government expenditure.

As in the past, however, most Americans (57%) are able to correctly estimate the unemployment rate (currently about 9%). A majority (63%) also knows that the main focus of the recent protests and political debates in Wisconsin was on union bargaining rights.

Reflecting his growing visibility, 55% identify Mark Zuckerberg as the founder of the social networking site Facebook. This is the only question on the survey that far more of those younger than 30 answered correctly than those age 65 and older (63% vs. 25%).