What It's Like To Be A Government Worker

Guests

Elizabeth Rogers, fiscal accounts clerk supervisor, Maryland Comptroller's office
Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy, Harvard University

A Pew poll shows that Americans' trust in government and its institutions is at a near-historic low. But the government isn't limited to the talking heads on your television — it's also your neighborhood cops, firefighters, school nurses and bus drivers.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In today's New York Times, former President Bill Clinton remembered the Oklahoma City bombing, 15 years ago today, and noted an idea advocated in the months and years before the bombing by an increasingly vocal minority: the belief that the greatest threat to American freedom is our government, and that public servants do not protect our freedoms but abuse them.

Today, criticism of government is no less vocal, though thankfully less dramatic. We should note, however, that a disgruntled taxpayer flew a small plane into a government office building in Texas back in February.

This week, NPR News airs a series of reports about the country's changing attitude toward the government and elected officials called Trust in Government. It's done in cooperation with the Pew Research Center.

A Pew poll released this week shows Americans' trust in government and its institutions at a near-historic low. Almost one of every three say they believe government is a major threat to their personal freedoms.

So we decided to go to the source. If you work in government at any level, any job, what don't the rest of us understand about your job? When you hear the anger, the distrust, what do you wish you could say? We want to hear from you this hour: school nurses, mail carriers, firefighters, DMV license examiners, public defenders, meter maids. If you're a government worker, tell us what that's like. How do people respond to you; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, take a look at that poll there. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

First up, Elizabeth Rogers, who works at the Maryland Tax Department. She's a fiscal accounts clerk supervisor, often the person who picks up the phone to track down information about people's taxes, and joins us from her office in Annapolis. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. ELIZABETH ROGERS (Fiscal Accounts Clerk Supervisor, Maryland Tax Department): Thank you.

CONAN: And I can't imagine when you call people on the phone - you say you're from the Maryland Tax Department - they're exactly welcoming.

Ms. ROGERS: No, actually, everyone's first response, when you say income tax to anyone, is they're scared.

CONAN: I can understand that.

Ms. ROGERS: But after talking to them, by the end of the conversation, I think that we all know that we have to pay our taxes, even myself as a taxpayer. And it's necessary, especially for local and county governments, to be able to fix our roads, help with the schooling, many things.

CONAN: I'm sure you, like the rest of us, take a look at your paycheck and say: FICA, I mean, come on.

Ms. ROGERS: Exactly, and not only that, of course we have furlough days. That's not easy on anyone's pocket, but it's more important for me to have a furlough day than for someone to lose a job.

CONAN: In the outside world, outside your office, when you say you work for Maryland income tax, what do people tell you?

Ms. ROGERS: Actually, people confuse us with the IRS a lot.

CONAN: I bet they do.

Ms. ROGERS: I don't get many negative results from people. Actually, it's more positive than negative.

CONAN: When people tell you, gee, you've got that cushy government job with those great benefits...

Ms. ROGERS: Not so cushy.

CONAN: I bet not.

Ms. ROGERS: No, actually it's very government jobs are very stressful, and I don't think people realize that. They automatically feel like if you work for the state, you're just using their tax dollars. You know, it's - especially this time of year - it's so busy, it's unreal.

CONAN: Does any you work for the income tax people in the state of Maryland.

Ms. ROGERS: Exactly.

CONAN: Do people tell you: Would you please get your hand out of my pocket?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROGERS: No, they really don't, but I wish somebody'd get out of mine, too - I just can't help it. It's just a necessity.

CONAN: Well, I hope things have calmed down since April 15.

Ms. ROGERS: Not really. We're still busy trying to get everything taken care of.

CONAN: I live in the state of Maryland. My taxes are fine.

Ms. ROGERS: OK, good, glad to hear.

CONAN: So take my word for it. All right, thanks very much.

Ms. ROGERS: You have a good day.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today, Elizabeth Rogers from the Maryland Comptroller's office. Be nice if she calls you.

Robert Putnam joins us now to shed some light on changing patterns of trust in government. He teaches public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He's also written a number of books, including "The Collapse and Revival of American Community," and joins us from a studio at Harvard in Cambridge. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor ROBERT PUTNAM (Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Author, "The Collapse and Revival of American Community"): It's good to be with you again, Neal.

CONAN: And you know, when you hear the rhetoric about, you know, big government, those elected politicians, well, the rhetoric is about those we remember back to Oklahoma City 15 years ago, even that man who crashed into that building in Austin last week, and the people who take the brunt of this are just ordinary people who work in government offices.

Prof. PUTNAM: Yes, Neal, and that's especially unfair because all of the evidence suggests that when people say they have distrust in government, whether national government or local government, they're mainly not talking about reflecting on their own personal experiences with, you know, government bureaucracy.

Trust in government is all the evidence says is not very much driven by that. It's more driven by your general assessment of how big things in the society are going, if they're going well or going poorly, and whether in general you think the government is honest and trustworthy.

The very high levels of trust in government, the highest that we know in terms of when we've been keeping records of these things, were driven after World War II by the success of the U.S. government in, you know, the New Deal, getting out of the recession, getting out of the Great Depression and winning the war, and 75 percent of Americans said they trusted the government.

It didn't mean that they were necessarily happy or unhappy when they, you know, filled out their IRS form. It meant that they basically trusted the government to do what was right most of the time. That high level of trust collapsed, first of all, in the face of Watergate and Vietnam - a huge collapse around the time of intervention in Vietnam, and then another big drop when Watergate was revealed.

Again, that didn't have anything to do with individual, you know, government officials or government workers in post offices or revenue services or whatever. It had to do with whether it was based on the fact that it had been revealed you couldn't trust the government.

And then again, as is well-known, the Pew work shows this and other work has shown it, too, when the economy is in great shape, as in the '80s or during much of the '90s, trust in the government goes up because basically, again, it's not having to do with anything that's happening at the local, you know, post office or IRS. It's basically people who are thinking, well, things are going pretty well.

And we are now at a level, in terms of the economy, as everybody knows, it's the worst since the Great Depression. And since we're still in the midst of it, and we haven't yet gotten out of it, I think it's not at all surprising that people are expressing very low levels of trust in government - again, not to do with I mean, the patterns at the local level tend to be somewhat disconnected from this. In general, people are more trusting of state and local government than they are of the national government but...

CONAN: Yeah, I was just about to ask you about that, though that gap has been narrowing.

Prof. PUTNAM: Yeah, and it varies, actually, from place to place. Sometimes, some people actually trust the national government more than they do the local government. There are many examples of that, too. It depends on how good your local government is, basically.

I mean, I think it's best to think of these trust-in-government measures, either the national level or the local level, as being basically an effort by reasonable people to say, you know, how do we think public officials are doing these days? And if you live in a place where the local government is pretty corrupt, not surprisingly, trust in local government is lower there.

If you're, let's say blacks. Blacks, especially in the South before the civil rights movement, blacks had extremely low levels of trust in local government and extremely high levels of trust, extremely high levels of trust in the national government. That was not - kind of something that was just in their minds, and it didn't have anything to do with the particular actions about how they were treated at the post office. It had to do with the fact that local government was more racist, and the national government was less racist.

CONAN: And when you see these, this sort of vast movement we're going to get a lot of callers on the line; our lines are choked at the moment but when you see these - the movie, you know, throw the bums out, we need to get government much, much smaller, these people are just eating away at our prosperity and are stealing the legacies of our grandchildren, what does this say about our society, about our civil engagement?

Prof. PUTNAM: Well, look, Americans have always been a little skeptical about government. We historically have had a much smaller and still do today a much smaller government than most other countries at our stage and rate of development and so on. So it is true that Americans are a little more skeptical than most people in the world, about government.

It is also true that it's hard for any government to mount successful policies to deal with anything, to deal with the recession or to deal with, you know, health insurance or whatever, in the face of widespread public distrust.

On the other hand, I think that if the government successfully if we successfully get out of this recession, and I'm pretty confident we will, I think the government, whichever government is in power, will get credit for that.

So I am not one of those who thinks that this is kind of we've entered some kind of dark hole in which here in which we spiral ever downward to lower trust in the government. I think we are in the midst of a perfect storm, but even perfect storms pass.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. We'll go to Jerry(ph), Jerry with us from Grand Rapids.

JERRY (Caller): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hey, Jerry.

JERRY: Longtime listener, finally got on the show once.

CONAN: Well, congratulations.

JERRY: Yeah, not so great circumstances, though. The reason I called for - to today's show is because one of the reasons I left, after 15 years working for a Michigan county government, were some of the attitudes of the public that I met and, you know, acquaintances in the neighborhood, that sort of thing, towards the fact that I was a public employee, as well as some of the relatively unsavory things I had to do. I was mostly in solid waste and...

CONAN: Well, I can understand that, but what kinds of attitudes were you getting from people?

JERRY: Well, just as your visitors there were saying, that, you know, people have the attitude that the public employee is, oh, just hanging around, chewing up the state and county tax money and waste you know, being wasteful and not efficient and that sort of thing, which really bugged me at the time because the entity that I worked for was what they call an enterprise fund, which meant we operated like a business. We had to take in revenue and match our revenue to what we were doing on a daily basis.

CONAN: And to put it mildly, if somebody doesn't deal with the effluent that you dealt with, it piles up.

JERRY: It piles up, and it piles up real fast, amazingly fast, as I found out in my 15 years working in the solid-waste world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well...

JERRY: But in the end a couple other points that I wanted to make is, people tend to think that government employees, like you mentioned, are paid well and have all these grand benefits and that sort of thing. When I left county government, I went from - yes, we had good insurance, but we were paying our own retirement; 5 percent of our pay had to go into the retirement fund and that sort of thing. I went to consulting work. My pay scale nearly doubled. So that tells you something about where the pay scales are for public employees in Michigan, compared to the consultants that work for the same public employee.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call, and I'm sure the people in your community appreciate your work over those 15 years.

We're talking about government workers, why they get no respect at all. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The week's poll on trust in government, released by NPR News and the Pew Research Center, finds that by almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government. The survey finds a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government: a dismal economy; an unhappy public; bitter, partisan-based backlash; and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.

You can find the full results of that poll at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But of course, government means a lot more than Congress or the president. Government also fills our potholes, teaches our kids, and polices our streets. How is this sentiment playing out for government workers? If you work in government at any level, any job, what don't the rest of us understand about what you do? When you hear the anger, the distrust, what do you wish you could say?

We want to hear from you this hour, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, or you can drop by that website, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Bob Putnam, we know you've got to leave us, you've got another meeting coming up, but what do you take away from this Pew survey?

Prof. PUTNAM: Well, I think that the survey shows how big the hole is we're in at the moment. And I do think that this level of distrust in government is a problem for all of us, actually. It's a problem, actually, for even those of us who are - regardless of our political views, because we need government to get some basic things done, and it's harder to get things done when we don't all when many of us don't trust it.

I mean, it's harder to motivate good workers. That's what you're hearing from your callers this hour. And it's harder to rally the country to face the serious challenges that we do face.

>I repeat: I'm not, basically - deeply pessimistic. I think that this is basically a decent country and that when government starts doing things demonstrably - I don't mean just passing bills, I mean things start improving, the economy, people's health care and so on - the government will get credit for it. And so I think this at the moment, we're in a particularly unpleasant, downward, vicious - circle. But I think we can turn that around, and I think it'll be good for the country if we do.

The partisanship, as you say, is a serious problem. I think that's a somewhat unrelated issue, but it is no doubt that that partisan the degree of partisanship has changed enormously, even just over the last 10 or 15 years, and I think that's bad for the country.

CONAN: Bob Putnam, thanks very much for your time. We do appreciate it.

Prof. PUTNAM: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Robert D. Putnam of the Saguaro Seminar, Civic Engagement in America, professor of public policy at Harvard, joined us from a studio there.

OK, let's hear from you, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Clint(ph), Clint with us from Painesville, Ohio.

CLINT (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal. I've been listening a long time. I've never had a chance to get through. I am a county employee. I am a wastewater I work for the wastewater department. I'm a maintenance mechanic. And a lot of folks will always tell me, they'll say, well, I pay your wages. And what my response to that is, is we provide a service. We've had great cutbacks due to the fact that a lot of our revenue is involved with tie-ins, construction, that sort of thing. I haven't had a pay increase in two years.

I see a lot of the folks that have a sense of entitlement. They've worked it a long time. But I see a lot of hardworking, dedicated people out there doing some nasty jobs in really awful conditions, and the only time that they see us is when something breaks. It's something that people don't pay attention until it's water in your basement.

CONAN: And not very pleasant water at that.

CLINT: No sir, it's not.

CONAN: Do you get a lot of Ed Norton jokes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CLINT: No, and I always forget who he was. I can never remember the name, but the guy from "The Honeymooners."

CONAN: Exactly, exactly, used to work in the sewers. Clint, thanks very much for your time, appreciate it.

CLINT: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Nadir(ph), Nadir in Little Rock. Am I pronouncing your name correctly?

NADIR (Caller): Yes, Neal, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be on the show, and it's a pleasure to hear you yes sir, it's Nadir, yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NADIR: Well, I'm in law school here in Little Rock and this past semester, I had an externship at the federal public defender's office. And one interesting dynamic of the federal public defender's office is you're dealing with individuals who, by their own, would not be able to afford an attorney, and in a criminal proceeding in America, you're guaranteed to have counsel represent you.

Now, one of the most difficult parts that these attorneys have to go through in their daily jobs is convincing these clients that the same government who brought them in on such-and-such charges is going to be the same government who's supplying them with counsel who will adequately represent them and go for their best interests throughout the entire adversarial proceedings.

And that conflict, if you will, really, really hurts not only the attorneys but the clients because this mistrust that they have of the government, for whatever reason, makes them not tell the attorney everything they need to know about the particular case. So your worst-case scenario, you're in trial doing something and all of a sudden, something the client didn't tell you - because he didn't trust you as your attorney - comes out at trial and...

CONAN: Kaboom.

NADIR: It ends up hurting him and hurting the attorney, ultimately, because you it hurts your case. And so...

CONAN: I wonder: On the other side, though, do people on the outside say, I'm paying my taxpayer dollars so you can represent low-life scum?

NADIR: Oh, all the time. When I would tell my friends and family the types of clients I would represent at the not represent but help represent in the office, they would just kind of turn their noses up and go like, well, I can't believe that we would pay taxpayer dollars to, for instance, support like, a person who was convicted of molesting children - or something of that sort.

CONAN: Yeah, sure, drug dealers or various other things, yeah.

NADIR: Exactly, but you kind of just have to say, well, we have a Constitution. Our Constitution, no matter how bad of an individual you are, guarantees you certain rights. And just because you do one thing as opposed to another doesn't mean that you don't get those rights anymore. And it's kind of a nuance argument to make to somebody who isn't really familiar with the Constitution and the trials and tribulations our own Constitution has had to go through to keep up with our own rights.

But it's just a very interesting situation that these public attorneys have to go through at both the state and the federal level because you're trying to convince these clients like, look, I am here for you. I am not going to go to the prosecutor's office and tell them everything you just told me because that's not my job. My job is to be your lawyer. Yes, I'm paid by the state or the government, but that's not my concern. My concern is you. And some clients get that, some clients don't. And unfortunately, the clients who don't, that's to their detriment.

CONAN: Nadir, good luck with your studies.

NADIR: All right, thank you, sir.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Lane(ph), Lane with us from Pittsburgh - Pittsburgh, California, I should say.

LANE (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Yes, go ahead.

LANE: OK, I'm a public-health nurse, and I work for a county in Northern California, and it has been my privilege to serve the citizens of this county for 21 years. As a nurse, I'm a part of a structure that maintains the health and well-being of communities, families and individuals. Without public health, you have disease outbreaks; without follow-up, disasters without the ability to respond; and people without health benefits that have no other place to go.

We're the health infrastructure that responds in crisis. My caseload is made up of the most vulnerable among us: the elderly, the poor, immigrant populations and increasingly, working people who do not have health benefits.

That's crucial that people understand that. When people have jobs, but they are not covered by health benefits, they still have health needs. They still need their children immunized. They still need follow-up, preventative care themselves and tertiary care. You have to have a structure in place that can address that, and that is public health.

CONAN: And do you see a change in attitude, the people you deal with every day?

LANE: Say again?

CONAN: Do you see a change in attitude over the past few years?

LANE: You know, I see people that are increasingly misunderstood and misled. I think what unfortunately, some aspects of the media in this country have done -has been to undermine the critical thinking process, to confuse people, give them soundbites that are not really valid, and then have all of us fighting against each other for limited crumbs.

The reality is the average public employee could have made more money if they had gone into private industry.

CONAN: Certainly nurses, I'm sure about that.

LANE: I could have made more money if I had gone into private industry, and could probably be retired now. I chose to serve those who most need me. And it has been a decision I have been happy and proud of all my nursing life.

CONAN: Lane, thanks very much. We appreciate it. Glad you had a chance to tell us.

LANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Dale(ph), Dale with us from Laramie.

DALE (Caller): Hey there, Neal, how's it going?

CONAN: Oh, not too bad. How about you?

DALE: Pretty good. I just wanted to call in and comment. I worked as an EMT for three years for a volunteer company, as well as the Wildland Fire Service during the summer months. And over in Wyoming, I mean, distrust in government kind of goes hand in hand with being from Wyoming. I don't mean to ride across the whole demographic, but most folks here just haven't really trusted the government even before all this bailout stuff.

And unfortunately, it trickles down to us as volunteers. We get compensated for our time, but our department runs mostly on subsidies. And in Wyoming, we have a penny tax that comes out of the 6 percent sales tax.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DALE: And one of the biggest problems was when that came up for ballot, a lot of people just simply, because they didn't like their public services or the people in office, wouldn't want to vote for it and we kind of found ourselves campaigning for this particular...

CONAN: Sales tax.

DALE: ...legislation to pass. And it was really hard, because if we lost our subsidy, there wouldn't be an ambulance coming, you know? And that would be - that was really tough on us. And fortunately, it passed. But still, people, I think, need to realize that if you're upset with maybe the police department or you're upset with your government officials and you decided to vote against things like that, it hurts everybody. It hurts not only your ambulance service, but your fire services as well. And I just hope folks don't take their distrust and anger on government out on us.

CONAN: I suspect you never saw that sort of attitude when you actually went to help somebody.

DALE: Unfortunately, we did at some times. In our training, they would mention that because we show up in uniform of some kind, most people would take that to mean police. And some of our patients were not always the most savory of characters and were often somewhat violent to the police and would sometimes get violent with us. So - I mean, it goes all around, you know? I mean, I'm not there to turn you in to the police. I'm not here to prosecute you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DALE: I'm just here to help, you know? And I've got my training as far as medical and fire goes. I'm just a volunteer here to help. And I really don't want any trouble that you have with any other government official.

CONAN: Dale, thanks very much for the call.

DALE: Mm-hmm. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: So long. Let's go next to - this is Christine(ph). Christine with us from Wisconsin Rapids.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal. It's nice to be with you.

CONAN: Nice to be with you.

CHRISTINE: Thanks. I just wanted to share that I think with many, especially federal employees, we fully acknowledge that we feel that we're, I think, compensated very well for the work that we do. But I think very often, we're underappreciated for the types of work that we do and how much we actually assist the public. Very often, the reports that hit the media are the negative things, like backlogs and other things. But the reality is, on a daily basis, we assist people with things that are life-changing for them. And if...

CONAN: Can you give me an example?

CHRISTINE: Yes, absolutely. I used to do the Social Security survivors' benefits, and I was able to assist a lady in obtaining a survivor's benefit for her husband, who had died in World War II. She'd gone 40-some years without getting a Social Security benefit on that record, and I was able to help her. Nobody hears that story...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRISTINE: ...but they hear the one person that complains because they didn't get their disability benefit, or their check was late.

CONAN: So you are the much-maligned government bureaucrat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRISTINE: I am, but I'm so proud to work for Social Security, I really am. And I think a lot of us feel that way, but there is that backlash where now, you really don't share it as much as you maybe used to. And I think, again, the average person, if you ask them, they have had a very positive experience with Social Security. But collectively in a group, you're going to hear that, you know, oh, it's just the government and nobody does their jobs, and they don't work or they have too many holidays.

CONAN: And they don't care.

CHRISTINE: They don't. They don't. And I think we really do a great job in general. And I think most employees do - and no matter where they work. But it's something to be proud of, and I'm hoping that that will change with the economy getting better - or whatever comes from it.

CONAN: Let's hope so, Christine. Appreciate it.

CHRISTINE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking today with government workers about what we don't understand about your job.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Kyle(ph). Kyle with us from St. Louis.

KYLE (Caller): Hi, Neal. It's an honor to be on the show.

CONAN: Well, nice to have you, too.

KYLE: I would just like to say, I'm a paramedic here in St. Louis, in the St. Louis area. And we're on the - kind of on the opposite end. Everybody is very happy to see us, especially when we're, you know, show up the door at 3 in the morning when you need help or...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KYLE: ...when we're out giving out bicycle helmets to kids at schools. But people aren't so happy with us when they get a bill, or when there's a new bond issue that we need passed because - I mean, I won't give the details of it, but it's very expensive to operate a topnotch ambulance service.

CONAN: So you have some sympathy with our earlier caller from Wyoming.

KYLE: I - yeah. He kind of took the words right out of my mouth, and I would just - yeah, I can completely understand where he's coming from because it's like that - pretty much every community across the nation, I feel, is in that same squeeze, where it's just - it's very, very expensive to operate these emergency services that people have come to expect. And by no means do we want to scale back. I mean...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KYLE: ...we want - as we want to help you, we want to help the citizens. And it's just frustrating because sometimes you just want to say, well, with great service comes a price.

CONAN: A price. All right, Kyle, thanks very much. And I know that people really do appreciate it when you do show up at 3 o'clock in the morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KYLE: Well, thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: So long. Let's go next to Carol(ph). Carol with us from San Mateo, California.

CAROL (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Sure.

CAROL: I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

CAROL: I work in the criminal justice system in California; I work as an interpreter. And I just want to say how important it is to have a criminal justice system intact, because I've lived in different parts of the world where it's - where the justice system has, you know - largely corrupt, and I've seen how much that affects every aspect of society: safety, ability to do business. It just - it's - there are so many things that it affects, and it's kind of something that is behind scenes for most people because they don't fall in to the criminal justice system. But it is something that's very, very important.

CONAN: So an interpreter, when a case comes up and - are you - you speak Spanish? Is that your language?

CAROL: Yes. Yes.

CONAN: So...

CAROL: I interpret for defendants and witnesses in criminal matters.

CONAN: And the system could not proceed without your efforts there.

CAROL: That's right, yeah. And there are many languages - you know, interpreters interpret many languages and so it's - you know, it's very important for people that don't speak English well enough to have access to the system.

CONAN: And how many are you - of there are you in that courtroom?

CAROL: There aren't very many of us. We're a pretty small group. But you know, we...

CONAN: If somebody needs help with a particular language, they have to call, you know, special scheduling to make sure there's an interpreter for Polish or whatever it is?

CAROL: Yes. Yes. If it's not - the more common language, they have to schedule, yeah, for that language.

CONAN: And you're right. What are the countries you've lived in other than the States?

CAROL: I lived in Ecuador, I lived in Spain, and I lived in Mexico.

CONAN: So there are places among those places where justice is not always perceived as - with great integrity.

CAROL: Right. And you know, people ended up living with, you know, in homes that you have to build a wall around your home; and you know, the safety on the street is not very good; business can, you know - often as corrupt in such very hard-to-do business.

CONAN: Carol, I'm afraid we're out of time, but we thank you for your call. We do appreciate it.

CAROL: OK.

CONAN: We're talking with government workers, the people who pave our roads, fill the potholes, remove the snow and fight our fires.

Coming up, though, we're going to be talking about the fallout from the Iceland volcano. Stay with us.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Pew Poll: Trust In Government Hits Near-Historic Low

Americans' trust in government and its institutions has plummeted to a near-historic low, according to a sobering new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Only 22 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew say they can trust government in Washington "almost always or most of the time" — among the lowest measures in the half-century since pollsters have been asking the question.

And an increasing number — almost 1 of every 3 people — say they believe government is a major threat to their personal freedoms and want federal power reined in.

Pew asked people to say whether they were content, frustrated or angry with the federal government — and 3 of every 4 people said they were either frustrated or angry.

Heard On 'Morning Edition'

The public's unalloyed hostility flows from what Pew Center Director Andrew Kohut characterizes as a perfect storm of conditions: a bad economy, backlash against Washington partisanship and "epic discontent" with elected officials that found fuel in this year's bitter health care debate.

"Health care reform contributed in the second half of last year to this growing concern about the power of government," Kohut tells NPR.

"The public," he says, "wants a less activist government."

Kohut says measures of trust typically decline during Democratic administrations. Indeed, some of the previous lows in trust of government, as measured since 1958, were recorded during the Clinton and Carter administrations.

But the trust numbers were even lower at the close of the George W. Bush administration, dipping below 20 percent.

The current sour mood is expected to favor out-of-power Republicans in the fall midterm elections. But there's a caveat that should give pause to those on both sides of the aisle: Pew also found that the number of Americans who view Congress favorably declined by half over the past year, to 25 percent, the lowest Pew has ever recorded.

At A Glance: Key Survey Findings

  • Just 22 percent of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in a half-century.

  • Public hostility toward government seems likely to favor Republicans in the midterm elections this fall. But favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as Congress, have reached record lows.

  • The proportion of Americans who say they are "angry" with the federal government has doubled since 2000, increasing from 10 percent to 20 percent.

  • Independents who are highly frustrated with government are highly committed to voting this year, and they favor the GOP candidates in their district by a margin of 66 percent to 13 percent.

  • Explore More Of The Findings

Source: Pew Research Center

Americans, Kohut says, have a "relentlessly" negative view of Congress.

How Bad?

The results of the Pew survey, conducted in March, were so startlingly grim that Kohut says the organization did three follow-up surveys to verify its findings.

"We were concerned that we were getting a misread," Kohut told NPR's Steve Inskeep, because the original sample was taken during the height of the health-care debate in Congress.

Kohut's interview with Inskeep will air Monday on Morning Edition.

But Pew's additional surveys showed largely the same results: a disaffected and increasingly angry populace, disillusioned with state and federal government, as well as with federal departments ranging from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Education.

The mistrust that is permeating the electorate, Kohut says, is "about government writ large."

Measuring Anger

Pew surveys dating from 1997 show that an average of about 55 percent of Americans typically express frustration about the federal government, with the exception of a temporary spike in trust after Sept. 11.

In the current survey, 56 percent say they feel frustrated by the federal government. The big difference this time, according to the Pew survey, is the growing numbers who expressed "intense anti-government views."

The proportion of Americans who say they are angry has doubled since 2000. Now at 21 percent, it tops the previous high of 20 percent in 2006.

"The percentage who are angry is still small," Kohut says, "but it's twice as much as it was back in the late 1990s."

Pew found that intense anti-government sentiment is concentrated among Republicans, independents and others who lean Republican, as well as those who agree with the Tea Party movement.

Anti-government animus is particularly intense among the 30 percent of those surveyed who say that "government is a major threat to my personal freedoms," Kohut says.

Those numbers among people who identify with the Tea Party movement "go through the roof," he says. Fifty-seven percent in that group say the government is a major threat to them, and 43 percent say they are angry with the federal government.

Those negative feelings far outpace the view of traditional Republicans, 43 percent of whom said government is a major threat, and 30 percent who described themselves as angry. By contrast, 18 percent of Democrats view the government as a major threat, and only 9 percent say they are angry with the federal government.

Key Voters: Independents

The Democrats have several big worries going into the fall elections: growing disaffection among independents, and expected high turnout among those who are the angriest — and thus most motivated.

"The Democrats and liberals have been politically asleep when we talk about the intensity of their views," Kohut says. "There's just no comparison."

Independents who are "highly frustrated with government are highly committed to voting this year," he says. "And they favor the Republican candidates in their districts by an overwhelming 66-to-13 percent margin."

The survey also found that about a third of independents who lean Republican said that the Tea Party best reflects their view, with about the same number saying the Republican Party fits the bill.

Interestingly, only half of self-identified Republicans say their party best represents their views, with close to a third saying they believe their leanings are better reflected by the Tea Party.

The past year's backlash against government may be best illustrated by a couple of statistics, Kohut says.

Before President Obama took office last year, the public was "pretty much evenly divided" about what size government the country needed, with 42 percent advocating for a smaller government and 43 percent for a bigger one.

Now, 50 percent of those surveyed want a smaller government; 39 percent want a bigger one that provides more services. That comes even as 61 percent of those surveyed say they think stricter regulation of financial companies is a good idea — up from 54 percent in October of last year.

"We've had some backlash," Kohut says. "Washington and politics have poisoned the well in terms of trust in government."

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