Public perceptions: What do you know?

An ‘Irish Times’ poll tests public knowledge of Irish life, Government spending and social-media usage, among other subjects. We have a lot to learn

Sun, Dec 1, 2013, 08:00

The level of public knowledge about some of the key economic and social facts of life in Ireland today, as revealed in the latest Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll shows we have a limited understanding of how public money is spent and of how society has changed in recent years. We also believe Ireland compares unfavourably with other countries, and we significantly overestimate the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter.

A majority of those polled believe that most of the welfare budget is spent on unemployed people, whereas in fact pensioners are the biggest beneficiaries. The majority, 62 per cent, thought unemployed people got most, 16 per cent thought pensioners received the biggest proportion and 17 per cent believed the biggest share of the welfare budget went on child benefit.

Interestingly, people under 24 were most inclined to believe that pensioners fared worst but the mistaken belief about how the €20 billion welfare budget is shared out was prevalent across all age groups and social classes.

The public also rates Ireland poorly as a place to live, when asked where Ireland might come on the UN Human Development Index, which measures 186 countries’ performance under headings such as wealth, health, education and happiness. The average guess was that we come 35th in the world, when in fact Ireland is a very respectable seventh.

On questions about taxation and fairness there are also very mistaken impressions. There has been a lot of political debate about whether the top 10 per cent of earners should be asked to pay more tax, but voters overestimate greatly the income of the country’s top earners.

When asked what income would be required to be in the top 10 per cent, the average response is €153,000. The actual figure is €75,000, according to the Revenue Commissioners, and that includes couples who are jointly assessed for tax purposes.

There is no huge variation across age groups or classes, but Labour supporters were easily ahead of all other categories in coming up with the right answer.

People were also wrong about what share of total income tax is paid by the top 10 per cent. The average figure given was 28 per cent, when it fact it is more than double that, at 59 per cent.

Respondents also appear to make incorrect assumptions about how much taxpayers’ money goes to politicians, compared with the sum spent on welfare or the wider public -service pay bill. Almost half of the respondents said that politicians as a group receive most from the public purse, when in fact the entire political system, at national level, costs about 0.5 per cent of the welfare bill.

It is possible that some people misinterpreted this question and thought they were being asked whether individual TDs were paid more than individual welfare or public-service payments, but the response tallies with other aspects of the poll.

For example, despite successive cuts in the pay of the Taoiseach, Ministers and TDs in the past five years, the majority of people said politicians’ pay had increased rather than decreased.

There were some big discrepancies in the responses from different age groups and social classes. Middle-aged and middle-class people guessed closer to the correct answer than younger and poorer voters.

There was also a significant gender difference. Women were twice as likely as men to get it wrong on politicians’ pay. Across party lines, Fine Gael and Labour supporters were closest to the right answers.

Who has suffered most?
One of the few correct answers related to the group that had suffered the greatest decline in their incomes: people under 17; people aged between 18 and 64; or those aged 65 and over.

More than 80 per cent rightly said that people between 18 and 64 had suffered the largest decline. Interestingly, a substantial majority of those over 65 gave the correct answer that they had not suffered the most.

Overall, the poll findings raise questions about the kind of political debate that has taken place since the economic crisis began. The level of misinformation that abounds makes it difficult to decide how the burden of the crisis should be shared.

The belief that politicians are getting such an enormous slice of the Exchequer funds indicates that our faith in democracy could be fragile.

The media also has serious questions to answer about why people are so wildly misinformed about basic facts. The whole range of media outlets, including public-service broadcasting and, yes, quality newspapers, needs to examine its conscience about how it reports on the issues of the day.

Health and crime
Beyond public spending, the poll reveals that a lot of people harbour misconceptions about how things have developed in Ireland over the past five years. Asked about issues such as the health service, crime rates and social welfare, a lot of people came up with the wrong answers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the light of the current debate about access to medical cards, the majority thought that the number of cards issued had decreased over the past five years, when in fact the number has increased. The number getting it wrong was not as dramatic as with some of the other questions, with 50 per cent saying the number of cards hads decreased and 39 per cent saying it hads increased.

However, 72 per cent of respondents said hospital waiting lists had got longer and just 14 per cent said they had decreased. In fact, official figures show that waiting lists have declined over the past five years.

However, people were correct in saying that the number of people left waiting on trolleys in A&E departments has increased in the period.

On crime, people were strongly of the view that it has increased over the past five years, with 68 per cent saying it is up, 14 per cent saying it has stayed the same, 16 per cent saying it has decreased and 1 per cent having no opinion.

In fact, most of the crime figures, and the latest CSO information, show a decrease between 2007 and 2012.

Firearms offences declined from 650 to 381, drug-related crime and public-order offences also declined significantly. Burglary did go up a little, and theft declined a little, but overall the picture is positive.

Asked about the murder rate, 61 per cent thought it had gone up while 17 per cent said it had gone down, 19 per cent said it had remained the same and 3 per cent had no opinion. The CSO figures reveal that the number of murders declined from 77 in 2007 to 53 in 2012 while the total number of homicides dropped from 132 to 79. A big part of this was the reduction in the offence of dangerous driving causing death, which reduced from 47 to 19. This is clearly a response to the country’s improved road safety record and the clampdown on drink driving.

Most people knew that the social welfare bill had gone up and that the number of public servants had reduced, but most were wrong in saying that the amount spent on public service pensions had decreased, when it has increased.

Foreign nationals
In response to questions about social issues, one of the most dramatic findings was that people significantly overestimated the number of foreign nationals in the country at 25 per cent when the true figure is 12 per cent.

There were some startling variations in the figures, with poorer people believing the proportion of foreign nationals in the country to be three or four times the actual percentage.

The poll gave lower figures for the estimated number of Catholics in the country and a higher figure for the number of atheists than the most recent census but neither was wildly off the mark.

One of the biggest mistakes people made was to guess that 50 per cent of the population logs on daily to Twitter, when the true figure is 10 per cent, and to guess that 63 per cent of us logs on daily to Facebook, when the true figure is 37 per cent.

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