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Just 23% Realize Deficit Largely Due to Commitments Made in 1960s and ‘70s

Even though the last session of Congress was one of the biggest spending in history, very few voters are aware that most of today’s federal budget deficit is actually the product of congressional decisions made decades ago.

In fact, a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 23% of Likely U.S. Voters are aware that most of the current deficit is the result of spending commitments made by Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. Forty-nine percent (49%) incorrectly believe that’s not the case. Twenty-nine percent (29%) more are not sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Government spending in America has gone up every single year since 1954, the year Elvis Presley recorded his first single. It has grown faster than the combination of population growth and inflation every year but one since 1965, the year the Beatles played at Shea Stadium.

Today, most federal spending goes to just three areas of the budget—national security, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid—and changes made during the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon passed on budget challenges to those of us living in the 21st Century. Forty-eight percent (48%) of voters recognize the impact of these programs on the budget. 

The Medicare/Medicaid system was established in 1965 while Johnson was in office, creating spending commitments that continue to challenge budget officials to this day. Nixon oversaw a revision in the benefit formula for Social Security recipients that has proven to be unsustainable despite several increases in Social Security taxes since his time in office. A faulty federal budget process allowed both Johnson and Nixon to pass programs with substantial long-term costs but little short-term budgetary pain while they were in office.

While the official debt ceiling is approximately $14 trillion, the total debt is actually in the range of $70 trillion. Fifty percent (50%) of voters recognize that the official figures understate the problem, and 64% think all liabilities should be included in the totals.  The current system was set in place by Johnson in an effort to hide the cost of the Vietnam War and his Great Society programs.

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The survey of 1,000 Likely Voters was conducted on April 21-22, 2011 by Rasmussen Reports. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence. Field work for all Rasmussen Reports surveys is conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, LLC. See methodology.

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