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Saving favorite programs tops America's budget priorities. But concern about deficit spending is growing

Americans, says Texas cotton farmer Jerry Harris, ``have out-spent our income. We're going to have to sacrifice all across the board.'' The wild turbulence of the stock market these days is telling many Americans what they already knew: that the federal government must sooner or later pay its way in the world.

Even welfare must take its cut, Mr. Harris says. ``It sounds like I have no mercy, but we have to do away with the luxuries.''

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This shapeless fuzzball of a public issue - the federal budget deficit - is taking on sharper edges since the market's tumble.

But don't cut cotton subsidies, Harris warns. ``That would export jobs.'' Besides: ``We're not going to help ourselves on balance of trade if we cut cotton production.''

Similar arguments, all too familiar but each with its own logic, still guard the federal budget on all sides.

Are Americans growing more inclined to pay the cost of narrowing the yawning deficit? The signs are faint but point toward thrift.

Yesterday, the Reagan administration put a final figure on the deficit for fiscal year 1987: $148 billion. But the deficit still forks no lightning in the public mind.

The Denver Post has not received a single letter regarding the stock market or the federal deficit in the past week. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit News, and Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune, editors have been surprised to get only the usual trickle of letters condemning the federal deficit but warning against raising taxes.

But a large number of callers have dialed radio host Michael Jackson's national show since the market crashed. ``They sense [the deficit] is a major cause,'' says Mr. Jackson, ``and that we've got to cut back on military spending.''

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Six months ago, most callers supported the President and blamed Congress for the deficit, Jackson notes. ``I'm not getting any calls anymore that completely support the President when it comes to the economy.''

An ABC poll taken early this week also found Americans out of synch with the administration. To cut the deficit, 47 percent of those polled offered cutting defense as their first choice, 28 percent chose raising taxes, and only 24 percent would first choose to cut social programs.

Another cotton farmer, Ted Sheely of Huron, Calif., is ready to sacrifice 4 or 5 percent of his cotton income this year to cut the deficit.

``Being a recipient of government subsidies, I'm more than willing to give up my share if it's fair,'' he says. ``If they try to do it all on my back, then I'm not going to like it.''

Like many people, Mr. Sheely is willing but reluctant to pay higher taxes and is skeptical that more money would be used to cut the deficit. ``One of the problems I have with the federal government is that whenever they have more money, they spend it.''

Most Americans have shown little inclination to make financial sacrifices to fight the deficit, says Tom Miller of the Roper Organization, a New York polling company. Deficit concern runs broad, but not very deep, he explains. People list it among their major concerns, yet ``virtually no one wants their taxes raised.''

The most direct way individuals feel the deficit is through higher interest rates. But even those are felt chiefly by those looking for a mortgage, notes Mr. Miller - ``not too many people.''

This lack of urgency is transmitted to Washington. ``As frustrated as we become with our political institutions,'' says Carol Cox, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, ``the fact is that they reflect rather well the views of the public.''

Although Senate Budget Committee chairman Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida speaks frequently on the dangers of the deficit, he says he sometimes feels like Chicken Little.

Polls show that the deficit is a high public concern, says his press secretary, Jack Pridgen. But very little mail is coming in on the issue.

``We're kind of scratching our heads,'' Mr. Pridgen says.

Radio talk show host Jim Bohannon gets a lot of calls from listeners concerned about the deficit. ``They talk a good game,'' he says. ``I am unconvinced yet that that translates into a real willingness to bite the bullet.''

Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office now at the Brookings Institution, observes that whittling the deficit by $50 billion (or 1 percent of the gross national product) through spending cuts and higher taxes would demand no great sacrifice or austerity.

``That's not that big a deal.... The American people wouldn't object to that.''

But people still see something special in their own piece of the federal budget.

The most sacred turf is social security. People who must live on it complain that their increase coming in January will immediately be absorbed by landlords raising their rents. Yet few worry that their checks will ever actually be cut back.

``Not in my lifetime,'' says Esther Merker from the porch of the Starlight Hotel on the Miami Beach boardwalk. ``They'll cut out social security like they'll cut out the sky.''

But people who live in public housing have already seen massive retrenchment and worry about more. ``If they cut, they'd be hurting the poor people, not the rich man,'' says Merline Matthews, a resident on the tenant council of a large Miami housing project.

Mayor Richard Berkley of Kansas City, Mo., says cities have already taken far more than their fair share of budget hits. It ``is a myth'' that cuts under Gramm-Rudman fall across the board, he says, citing the millions of dollars each major city stands to lose in federal grants if automatic cuts are triggered next month.

In Huntsville, Ala., where NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army's Redstone Arsenal undergird the local economy, people are conservative, says Mayor Joe Davis. They would like to see the deficit and interest rates come down, he says, but not through defense cuts.

``We feel defense has priority,'' says Mayor Davis. ``I don't say that because we have an ordnance base here. I'm saying that because of my own philosophy.''

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