Polling The Uninformed

Polling isn’t the same thing as survey research. The latter relies on field-tested questions and careful selection of a quantity of respondents sufficient to provide a statistically-valid result. Very few polls meet those standards.

Within the category of opinion polling, there are large discrepancies in the reliability of the information gathered. (Just ask Harry Truman or Hillary Clinton.) Some of those discrepancies occur despite good-faith but flawed efforts of pollsters; some occur because limited resources required methodological shortcuts. Too many are just garbage, generated by “pollsters” trying to peddle snake-oil of one sort or another.

My virtual friend Peter the Citizen recently shared a glaring example of snake-oil polling.

Readers may recall my previous references to Peter; he was an official in the Reagan administration–and remains an example of the intellectually-honest conservatives we’ve mostly lost. His area of expertise (back when government work demanded actual knowledge of what the hell you were doing) was welfare policy. He has consistently  debunked the assertion that TANF, the so-called “welfare reform” constantly touted by Paul Ryan and others, was a success. As he points out,

TANF is not “welfare reform” at all, but a flexible funding stream that has failed to provide an adequate safety net or an effective welfare-to-work program. In many states, it has become a slush fund used to supplant state spending and fill budget holes.

As GOP lawmakers seek to impose draconian work requirements on recipients of various social welfare programs, Peter reminds us that TANF’s work requirements are a” notable example of misguided policymaking– unreasonable, dysfunctional, and not about work.”

The real target of this particular paper, however, is the GOP’s reliance on polling to “prove” that work requirements are favored by the majority of Americans, including those on welfare–to buttress their argument that “work-capable” adults should be required to work in return for benefits. As one conservative proponent put it,

Voters are demanding that policymakers pursue welfare reforms that can move millions of able-bodied adults from welfare to work.”

As Peter notes, even people who support reasonable work requirements–and he counts himself as one of them– have balked at the recent attempts to add punitive provisions to SNAP and other programs. Some of the “pesky details” that pollsters don’t bother to provide to respondents are: who is to be considered “able-bodied?” Are jobs available? Is transportation? What about recipients with small children at home, or those acting as caretakers for disabled relatives?

And what about the cost of creating and monitoring this new set of rules? As Peter points out, passage of these requirements would force states to create new bureaucracies to monitor the millions of SNAP recipients to determine whether they are subject to the requirements and, if so, whether they satisfy them–but the proposal doesn’t provide any funding to support those new bureaucrats.

In the absence of context–the absence of information about these and similar “details”– responses to such polls are meaningless.

The poll questions reported verbatim in the linked paper reminded me vividly of a meeting I attended many years ago, where a state legislator from northeast Indiana shared the results of a “poll” he’d taken, the results of which “proved” that his constituents were firmly against abortion. The question–and I am not making this up–was “do you approve of killing babies?”

I bet I know what the poll results would be if we asked Americans “Do you approve of giving new tax breaks to rich people who are already being taxed at a lower marginal rate than Warren Buffet’s secretary?” How about “Should we let children starve if their parents don’t satisfy SNAP work requirements?”

The only thing such poll questions prove is the truth of something I learned in law school: he who frames the question wins the debate.


  1. So, we are asked to support the opinion of a former Reagan administration official and agree that TANF has failed? Ok,but TANF was created by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act instituted under President Bill Clinton in 1996.

  2. I used to receive “questionaires” from the state gop. They contained terribly loaded questions. I returned them with angry written responses to the questions, demanding that they stop sending out these bogus “polls” and that they remove me from their mailing list.

    Over a period of 3-4 years they continued to mail them to me, with increasingly loaded questions. I responded each time with increasingly angry written responses and the last one I mailed back contained a threat if they continued to mail them to me. They finally stopped after that one and I got the satisfaction of knowing that someone was actually reading my written responses.

    I just wish that I knew who the members are that create these bogus questionaires that are mailed to citizens because I would start a public campaign to put a stop to them. Far too many gullible people make the choice to fill out those questionaires while mindlessly giving the gop the “stats” they want to use.

    I have never received a questionaire from the Dem party, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

  3. “Some of the “pesky details” that pollsters don’t bother to provide to respondents are: who is to be considered “able-bodied?” Are jobs available? Is transportation? What about recipients with small children at home, or those acting as caretakers for disabled relatives?”

    Years ago, a knowledgeable friend told me, “You can find statistics to prove any point you want, if you know where to look.” At the time, I was his Administrative Assistant in his position with two one-year contracts with the City of Indianapolis working with job and social issues between teenagers and local government. He sent me to the State House to research a bill coming before the Indiana Legislature to allow 14 year-olds to quit school. One of our programs involved pairing teens with government, legal and business officials to learn what they do and why they do it; resulting in mock-trials, mock-City-County Council meetings, a mock Legislative session in which the teens found three recently passed bills were faulty. They had to be pulled to be rewritten; this was the same Legislature seeking to allow 14 year-olds to quit school.

    Before asking the above copied and pasted “pesky details”regarding qualifications for assistance or placing in jobs; we need to know if those seeking the answers and creating the questions are “able-minded”. The questions from the many years ago meeting from a northeast Indiana legislator’s poll are all timely issues today under Trump & Co. Today, they aren’t bothering to take a poll but are taking action, repealing proven protective laws and regulations and running through this country like you-know-what through a goose. The polls I receive from all levels of Democratic organizations and officials are repetitive and all include a form with suggested amounts of donations to aid their cause. They are not interested in our opinions; only in picking our pockets.

    The current federal administration has almost as many unfilled job-slots as it has appointees; it is pushing the decision-making and the financial burden onto state level government. “The only thing such poll questions prove is the truth of something I learned in law school: he who frames the question wins the debate.” The questions continue but there is no debate; the outcome is a foregone conclusion…whatever Trump decides at any given minute. And will be announced to the world via Tweet.

  4. The following is too long but it’s copied from Wikipedia on TANF and explains the political history of the act.

    “While liberals and conservatives agreed on the importance of transitioning families from government assistance to jobs, they disagreed on how to accomplish this goal. Liberals thought that welfare reform should expand opportunities for welfare mothers to receive training and work experience that would help them raise their families’ living standards by working more and at higher wages.[8] Conservatives emphasized work requirements and time limits, paying little attention to whether or not families’ incomes increased. More specifically, conservatives wanted to impose a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits and provide block grants for states to fund programs for poor families.[9] Conservatives argued that welfare to work reform would be beneficial by creating role models out of mothers, promoting maternal self-esteem and sense of control, and introducing productive daily routines into family life. Furthermore, they argued that reforms would eliminate welfare dependence by sending a powerful message to teens and young women to postpone childbearing. Liberals responded that the reform sought by conservatives would overwhelm severely stressed parents, deepen the poverty of many families, and force young children into unsafe and unstimulating child care situations. In addition, they asserted that welfare reform would reduce parents’ ability to monitor the behaviors of their children, leading to problems in child and adolescent functioning.[10]”

    “In 1992, as a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it” by requiring families receiving welfare to work after two years. As president, Clinton was attracted to welfare expert and Harvard University Professor David Ellwood’s proposal on welfare reform and thus Clinton eventually appointed Ellwood to co-chair his welfare task force. Ellwood supported converting welfare into a transitional system. He advocated providing assistance to families for a limited time, after which recipients would be required to earn wages from a regular job or a work opportunity program.[8] Low wages would be supplemented by expanded tax credits, access to subsidized childcare and health insurance, and guaranteed child support.”

    “In 1994, Clinton introduced a welfare reform proposal that would provide job training coupled with time limits and subsidized jobs for those having difficulty finding work, but it was defeated.[9] Later that year, when Republicans attained a Congressional majority in November 1994, the focus shifted toward the Republican proposal to end entitlements to assistance, repeal AFDC and instead provide states with blocks grants.[11] The debates in Congress about welfare reform centered around five themes:[11]”

    “Reforming Welfare to Promote Work and Time Limits: The welfare reform discussions were dominated by the perception that the then-existing cash assistance program, AFDC, did not do enough to encourage and require employment, and instead incentivized non-work. Supporters of welfare reform also argued that AFDC fostered divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, and created a culture of dependency on government assistance. Both President Clinton and Congressional Republicans emphasized the need to transform the cash assistance system into a work-focused, time-limited program.”

    “Reducing Projected Spending: Republicans argued that projected federal spending for low-income families needed to be reduced because it was too high and that this reduction was necessary to reduce federal spending.”

    “Promoting Parental Responsibility: There was broad agreement among politicians that both parents should support their children. For custodial parents, this meant an emphasis on work and cooperation with child support enforcement. For non-custodial parents, it meant a set of initiatives to strengthen the effectiveness of the child support enforcement.”

    “Addressing Out-of-Wedlock Birth: Republicans argued that out of wedlock birth was presenting an increasingly serious social problem and that the federal government should work to reduce out-of-wedlock births.”

    “Promoting Devolution: A common theme in the debates was that the federal government had failed and that states were more successful in providing for the needy, and thus reform needed to provide more power and authority to states to shape such policy.”

    “Clinton twice vetoed the welfare reform bill put forward by Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. Then just before the Democratic Convention he signed a third version after the Senate voted 74-24[12] and the House voted 256-170[13] in favor of welfare reform legislation, formally known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). Clinton signed the bill into law on August 22, 1996. PRWORA replaced AFDC with TANF and dramatically changed the way the federal government and states determine eligibility and provide aid for needy families.”

  5. “While liberals and conservatives agreed on the importance of transitioning families from government assistance to jobs, they disagreed on how to accomplish this goal. Liberals thought that welfare reform should expand opportunities for welfare mothers to receive training and work experience that would help them raise their families’ living standards by working more and at higher wages.[8] Conservatives emphasized work requirements and time limits, paying little attention to whether or not families’ incomes increased.”

    There is a vital issue both parties continue to ignore yet both welcome, often out-of-state developers offered large tax incentives, to gentrify the very neighborhoods where those on government assistance, seniors, disabled and low-income live in rundown areas. There is no assistance to relocate large groups of people so developers can benefit by the taxes paid by those being evicted from homes. These areas need gentrification due to being allowed to become rundown for years due to situations such as “Abandon Indy” which has disappeared from the news in all forms. The problem rests on one tax law this state refuses to change to transfer responsibility for repair, renovation, maintenance and upkeep on abandoned homes and buildings. I have not see this issue questioned or referred to since the series of “Abandon Indy” articles appeared in the Indianapolis Star long ago. How many other cities deal with these same problems with those needing public assistance in areas where infrastructure is allowed to continue to deteriorate at an escalating rate because that is where those on or needing public assistance are located? Once gentrification begins and tax incentives to developers go into effect, work on infrastructure begins. Where have all the people gone? How many have been added to the number of homeless and believed not worthy of public assistance? These people need and deserve physical “transitioning” assistance as well as financial but are lost in the local political infighting.

    I have put this issue and these questions to those I believe COULD find answers but get no response.

  6. JoAnn draws attention to a particular type of rent seeking-developers tax incentives resulting in gentrification- that is becoming more prevalent throughout this country. I’ve seen this and other rent seeking abuses everywhere I’ve lived and worked. If fact, if you step back for a moment, it can be understood as the Trump economic engine that’s driving the stock market and the economy.

    Here’s Wikipedia definition:

    Rent-seeking is an attempt to obtain economic rent (i.e., the portion of income paid to a factor of production in excess of what is needed to keep it employed in its current use) by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth.

  7. The idea, debate, or proposals on “Welfare Reform” is a classic misdirection play. The failure can be laid on steroid – crony-capitalism and their political enablers. The share of aggregate wealth in the USA has been concentrating since at least 1980, among the top fifth. We know this from various government reports.

    We also know from various leaked papers such as the Panama Papers how the uber wealthy can use tax havens to stash their wealth and avoid taxes. From Wiki >

    “The most obvious use of offshore financial centers is to avoid taxes”, The Economist added. Oxfam blamed tax havens in its 2016 annual report on income inequality for much of the widening gap between rich and poor. “Tax havens are at the core of a global system that allows large corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying their fair share,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, “depriving governments, rich and poor, of the resources they need to provide vital public services and tackle rising inequality.

    The response by our politicians is to crack down on the poorest, the people that capitalism has failed. The poorest have little political power, they cannot compete with the 1% when it come to campaign donations and hiring lobbyists. The 1% and the big corporations can essentially rent-to-own politicians who write the laws that protect them.

  8. The United States invested in two costly wars to rid us of aristocracy, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The recent emergence of oligarchy reveals the difficulty of permanent extinction.

    Clearly under Mitch McConnell the Senate has been replaced by the House of Economic Lords.

    The economic aristocracy needs to be booted once again and we have an opportunity (probably just one) to do it inexpensively this November.

    Are there enough of us left who remember and/or study history to pull it off? Betsy DeVos is certainly insuring that schools aren’t making any more of us.

  9. The impact of framing on voting is set forth in great detail by the eminent cognitive brain scientist, George Lakoff, and speaking of framing, take a look at the breathless business page and Trump reports of the leap in unemployment and the “strong” economy of late. Yes, unemployment is down and AVERAGE wages are up but slightly, but more importantly is the statistical measure employed. The proper measure is not ave) brage wages (which include Buffet, Gates and various CEOs) but rather median wages – which have barely nudged whatever the employment statistics. Yes, the economy is picking up, but for whom? Not the bottom 50%, whose chump change increase under the Trump-Ryan tax bill has been eaten up already by increases in increased taxes, inflation etc. while the trillions Trump and Ryan gave away to the rich and corporate class has found their way into stock buybacks, dividends, capital gains etc. In my book, the economy doesn’t become “good” until we have robust aggregate demand, and that will not happen until wage inequality is a thing of the past and median wages become living wages, and it doesn’t matter if we have zero unemployment.

  10. Mea culpa – Big mistake in the first sentence of my offering just published > leap in unemployment should have read leap in employment.

  11. Everyone has certainly polished off their research this morning. The way I sum things up is that any polls coming from Republicans trying to justify anything economically or socially is subject to, well, intense subjectivity and aren’t worth the electrons or paper that conveys “results”.

    They cut taxes for the rich so the rich will give them more election money. They want to cut social services so that they can give more money to the rich. They lie about wars so more military-industrial complex corporations can make more money for their rich moguls. This is the dreadful, un-democratic meme of the Republican Party and its fundamentally corrupt operators. This whole scheme is the Republicanism that Lewis Powell and Milton Friedman envisioned for the pathological end game of capitalism. All this is in my books. Frankly, I’m getting damned tired of writing this over and over.

    There has to be a major shift in our politics and the attitudes of our citizens to see the bullshit narrative of Republicanism for what it is. If that shift doesn’t happen, we will cease to exist as a democratic republic. I’m “only” 76, and in good health. I will probably live long enough to see the edge of the cliff, if not the free-fall sensation of going over it.

  12. Here is a timely article by the Guardian, it is a bookend for my previous post:
    UN: US inequality reaching a dangerous level due to Trump’s ‘cruel’ measures.

    Donald Trump is deliberately forcing millions of Americans into financial ruin, cruelly depriving them of food and other basic protections while lavishing vast riches on the super-wealthy, the United Nations monitor on poverty has warned.

    The Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz told the Guardian that, “This administration inherited a bad situation with inequality in the US and is now fanning the flames and worsening the situation. What is so disturbing is that Trump, rather than taking measures to ameliorate the problem, is taking measures to aggravate it.”

    Top of the list of those measures was the $1.5tn tax cuts enacted by the Republicans last December that slashed corporate tax rates. “Can you believe a country where the life expectancy is already in decline, particularly among those whose income is limited, giving tax breaks to billionaires and corporations while leaving millions of Americans without health insurance?” Stiglitz said.

    The Federal Reserve annual economic survey released last week underlines the large pool of people who are vulnerable to any further erosion of the safety net. It found that four out of 10 Americans are so hard up they could not cover an emergency expense of $400 without borrowing money or selling possessions. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/01/us-inequality-donald-trump-cruel-measures-un
    So we can pile on The Trumpet (Aka Agent Orange) and his Right Wing Reactionary Republicans.

    I have to ask that reoccurring question, where is the Democratic Party in all this?? What is the plan?? Where is the counter attack??? How will the Democratic Party help out that four out of 10 Americans that are so hard up they could not cover an emergency expense of $400 without borrowing money or selling possessions??

    Well the leadership at the DNC decided the best course of action with their funds was to initiate a totally frivolous lawsuit against Wikileaks, the Trump campaign and some Russians.

    The Corporate-Establishment Democrats are total zeros. There is no plan of opposition or resistance, just pathetic posturing and hand wringing of vote for us, because – well just because. The Corporate-Establishment Democrats have nothing to offer, except meaningless platitudes.

    Time is running out, the clock is ticking, you have no time outs left, what is the big play??? How are you going to win??? Oh, hope, hope, hope Robert Mueller or Stormy Daniels takes Agent Orange down.

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