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Polls: public confidence in government down

Martin Desmarais | 1/10/2014, 12:07 p.m.

According to several recent polls, Americans’ trust in the government and belief that it can solve pressing problems — the economy, health care and the budget — is at an all-time low. But pundits suggest this is no surprise on the back of the government shutdown and caution that widespread dislike of political leaders does not equate the inability of the government to function.

A poll conducted just last month by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that half of those surveyed said America’s system of government needs a lot of changes or even a complete overhaul. A stunning 70 percent lacked any confidence in the government to make progress on the important problems facing the United States in 2014.

When asked the main problems faced by the country and which the government needs to work on, respondents put health care at the top of the list, followed by jobs and the economy and then the U.S. debt and deficit spending.

The Pew Research Center has been polling public trust in the government since the late 1950s and Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the organization, says that since dipping to its current range in the 1970s, trust in the government has had some peaks and valleys but actually hasn’t changed all that much.

According to Doherty, since Watergate and the Vietnam War, Americans have had distrust of the government but the levels of trust seen prior to that period have never been matched again.

“The lack of trust really isn’t new. The relatively low trust has been around since the seventies,” Doherty said. “It has been low for a while and since the seventies there have been very few periods where trust has moved in a positive direction.”

However, he said the current all-time low in government trust can likely be attributed to the declining view of Congress and, in particular, the battles over the Affordable Care Act.

“The contentiousness and disagreement over that is a factor,” he said. “Maybe not the law itself, but certainly the debate and the fact that the government shut down over this law is a factor.”

He also said that the long recession and the fact that the economy still hasn’t recovered are factors in the low trust in government.

Doherty points out that, since the 1970s, trust in the government has not swung that much from president to president either. The numbers during the Carter administration are similar to the current ones during the Obama administration, despite the current all-time bottom.

Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said that it is important that people distinguish between the actions of certain elected officials and the government in general and he worries that the numbers that show low trust in the government are impacted by those not making this distinction.

“I think when you think about government it is important to keep in mind that government is not just those politicians in Washington, it is how we work together to do important things,” Berger said.