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May 3 2016

Are Americans Starting to Buy Into Freebies?

Patrice J. Lee

Progressives have been appealing to millennial voters with offers for free college. While Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders calls for free college tuition at public institution, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed using tax dollars to ensure students graduate debt free and President Obama wants to expand free K-12 to community colleges for a K-14 system.

Do Americans buy into it? New Gallup polling suggests that not surprisingly, some demographics do. However, while overall Americans don't buy into free college, they do for public education for preschoolers!

Majorities of Democrats (67 percent), young people (63 percent), lower-income households (61 percent), and those without college degrees (52 percent) agree with free tuition proposals, yet there is not majority support among all U.S. adults. Some 47 percent agree compared to 45 percent who disagree and another 9 percent have no opinion. Also, no demographic group supports free college tuition at a level above about 68 percent perhaps suggesting that Americans aren’t willing to foot the bill to pay for college for total strangers.  

It’s especially interesting to look at those with college degrees and those who make more than $90,000. More than half of both groups disagree with free college. One might have expected more takers for free college if they have student loans, but maybe they don't want to pay off their loans and be saddled with the cost of "free" college for subsequent generations of students.  

Meanwhile, there is overwhelming support for enacting free universal child care and pre-kindergarten programs for all children. Some 59 percent agree with this proposal compared to just one quarter (26 percent) who disagree, but a sizeable 16 percent have no opinion.

Support is highest among women (65 percent to 52 percent of men), young people and middle age Americans (70 percent of 18- 34 year olds and 62 percent of those in the 35-54 age bracket), and Democrats or those who lean Democrats (81 percent). The cheapest state for childcare by one measure is South Dakota where the cost for one infant and one 4 year old is $10,465 a year and the highest is New York where childcare costs for the same kids would be double that at $25,844 a year. Government regulations contribute to this high cost, and now they want us to subsidize these regulations?

Gallup notes that Americans are not thinking about who will pay for free programs:

And it is not clear whether Americans who favor these programs do so because they aren't thinking about the costs, because they assume "someone else" will pay them or because they believe the price in higher taxes is worth it.

A slightly different question Gallup tested on this topic nearly two years ago -- using federal money to make sure quality pre-K is available to everyone who needs it -- found 70% support. However, that slightly more positive response may reflect that the question did not offer the explicit "don't know enough to have an opinion" option that the current question does. Those without a well-formed opinion on the issue appear inclined to favor it.

What may be reflected here is belief that the youngest should have a strong educational start, but as my colleague, Charlotte, has explained before, free Pre-K (which is free to everyone but taxpayers) doesn’t work as much people think. Tracking the lives and careers of poor kids who received additional instruction at the Pre-K level, we learned that they didn’t fare that much better than those who didn’t participate in Pre-K programming.

Perhaps a softer heart for little ones leads to such overwhelming support for their publically-funded educations, but let’s not forget how well the well-funded public school system does with kids in K-12. Why do we expect anything better for those in Pre-K or those in community college?

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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