Americans don't always believe government numbers

May 08, 2014, 3:10 PM GMT+0

Americans, and especially Republicans, are highly distrustful of government statistics, saying that officials often underestimate how serious certain problems are

One of the struggles any government faces is in getting its citizens to agree on what the facts are. Significant portions of the American public reject the existence of climate change and large majorities disbelieve official government reports about the Kennedy assassination.  Most Americans trust the government to do what’s right only some of the time.  The latest Economist/YouGov Poll finds a public distrustful of many government-provided statistics, too.  Sometimes the disagreements appear party-based; other times there is a more general disbelief.

For example, fewer than one in four adults say most government statistics are “reliable and accurate.”  One quarter say about “half” of government statistics are.  And while Democrats are more trusting than Republicans, less than half of Democrats say they believe most government statistics. 

When it comes to some specific statistics, party matters less.  For example, both Republicans and Democrats see an undercount in the Census Bureau’s canvass of the U.S. population – that there are more people living in the United States than have been counted by the Census Bureau.  Fewer than one in five regard Census numbers as accurate. 

Of course, one of the major news stories during any decennial Census is the question of the undercount: the inability of Census-takers to reach all the population.  The undercount is the sources of the decennial arguments over whether or not the Census data should be adjusted.

Americans also see underestimates in figures about sexual assault in the military.  Since victims must report assaults, and reporting sexual attack may make victims open to additional harassment, it has always been assumed that sexual attacks are underreported, both inside and outside of the military.  Half of Republicans and half of Democrats say there are more sexual assaults in the military than government figures suggest. 

There are areas with larger party differences, especially when numbers can be used to make political points.  Although all political groups (and the Bureau of Labor Statistics itself) recognize that the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story about joblessness, 76% of Republicans (compared with 41% of Democrats) say there are more unemployed people than the numbers suggest.  And the size of Affordable Care Act enrollments is as much a political contest as a means of improving health.  61% of Republicans say there are fewer enrollments than reported; while about half of Democrats say the 8 million enrollment number is accurate, as seen in the Economist/YouGov Poll report earlier this week.  

Even FBI reports are questioned.  Only one in four Americans believe the crime statistics that show the rate of violent crime has declined over the last 20 years.  More than half the public (and nearly three in four Republicans) believes that violent crime has stayed the same or even increased in the last two decades. 

There is no racial difference in belief, and hardly any regional difference.   Women are less likely than men to think the crime rate has been going down.

Americans have not trusted numbers on some other notable occasions.  Immediately after the 2000 election, 60% of the public told a CBS News Poll they didn’t believe there was a fair and accurate vote count in Florida that year.  That election was different from most – and poll questions about the very next presidential election found most Americans confident about an accurate vote count. 

But as for other government numbers, Americans remain dubious.

Image: Getty

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.