Budget Process: perception vs. reality

February 26, 2011

What’s half the battle in the struggle to change the way Washington handles its finances? Having all the facts. But a recent CBS/New York Times poll reveals that we may be lagging a bit in this area. When it comes to how much Washington spends on what, do Americans have a good grasp on the numbers? Our latest fact sheet has the answer.

PERCEPTION VS. REALITY:

Do Americans Know How The Government Spends Their Money?

Persistent deficits and a spiraling national debt have focused Americans’ attention on government overspending. But do Americans really know how the federal budget breaks down? A recent CBS/New York Times poll suggests they do not. When asked what percentage of the federal budget was devoted to six different spending categories, the most typical answer was, “I don’t know.” Even when respondents said they did know, they were generally wrong.

EARMARKS: Most Americans either admit they don’t know how much of the federal budget is spent on earmarks (i.e. “pork barrel” spending), or grossly overestimate how much is spent.

PERCEPTION: 42% said the federal government spends more than 5% of its budget on earmarks; the same amount, 42%, said they didn’t know how much is spent on earmarks. Only 16% said earmarks make up less than 5% of the budget, which is the correct answer.

REALITY: The federal government spent about 0.5% of the budget on earmarks in 2010.

FOREIGN AID: An overwhelming majority of Americans overestimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.

PERCEPTION: 67% said more than 5% of the total federal budget is spent on foreign aid, and a surprising 17% believe more than 30% of the budget goes to foreign aid. 24% said they didn’t know. Only 9% said foreign aid makes up less than 5% of the budget, which is the correct answer.

REALITY: The federal government spent 0.6% of the budget on foreign aid in 2010.

WELFARE PROGRAMS: About two-thirds of Americans either over- or under-estimate how much of the federal budget goes to welfare programs.

PERCEPTION: 32% said the federal government spends more than 20% of its budget on welfare programs, while 29% thought it was less than 10%. 18% said they didn’t know. Only 21% said welfare spending makes up between 10% and 20% of the budget, which is the correct answer.

REALITY: In 2010, spending on welfare programs totaled $622.2 billion, or 18.0% of the federal budget.

DEFENSE SPENDING: Most Americans overestimate how much of the federal budget goes to defense and military spending.

PERCEPTION: 65% said the federal government spends more than 20% of the budget on defense; 17% believe more than half (!) of the entire budget is spent on defense. 4% said the government spends less than 10% on defense, and 19% said they didn’t know. Only 12% said defense spending makes up between 10% and 20% of the budget, which is the correct answer.

REALITY: In 2010, discretionary defense/military spending totaled $689.1 billion, or 19.7% of the budget.

SOCIAL SECURITY: About one quarter of Americans correctly estimate how much of the federal budget goes to Social Security.

PERCEPTION: 23% said Social Security spending accounts for less than 10% of the budget, while 30% said it is more than 20%. 22% said they didn’t know. 25% said Social Security makes up between 10% and 20% of the budget, which is the right answer.

REALITY: In 2010, Social Security spending totaled $700.7 billion, or 20.0% of the federal budget.

MEDICARE & MEDICAID: A large plurality of Americans underestimates how much of the federal budget goes to Medicare and Medicaid.

PERCEPTION: 42% said Medicare and Medicaid spending consume less than 20% of the budget, while 17% said it was more than 30%. 21% said they didn’t know. Only 20% said the programs make up between 20% and 30% of the budget, which is the right answer.

REALITY: In 2010, Medicare and Medicaid spending totaled $793 billion, or 22.7% of total federal outlays.

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9 Responses to Budget Process: perception vs. reality

  1. Mary says:

    what about the interest on the debt?

  2. Mary says:

    what about the interest on the debt?

  3. Mary says:

    what about the interest on the debt?

  4. Joe McCormick says:

    I can understand that this is a bird’s eye view of the budget. There are some rather grey areas in these numbers. For instance, what may be accounted for as defense spending could also be seen as foreign aide such as the US maintaining a huge military presence in Japan for strategic purposes which alleviates the Japanese from the expense of military defense. Is this military spending, foreign aide, or both? Most importantly is it necessary and in line with our priorities?

  5. Joe McCormick says:

    I can understand that this is a bird’s eye view of the budget. There are some rather grey areas in these numbers. For instance, what may be accounted for as defense spending could also be seen as foreign aide such as the US maintaining a huge military presence in Japan for strategic purposes which alleviates the Japanese from the expense of military defense. Is this military spending, foreign aide, or both? Most importantly is it necessary and in line with our priorities?

  6. Joe McCormick says:

    I can understand that this is a bird’s eye view of the budget. There are some rather grey areas in these numbers. For instance, what may be accounted for as defense spending could also be seen as foreign aide such as the US maintaining a huge military presence in Japan for strategic purposes which alleviates the Japanese from the expense of military defense. Is this military spending, foreign aide, or both? Most importantly is it necessary and in line with our priorities?

  7. Joan Gillon says:

    Why am I never polled on anything? I’m an average American. When you see poll results, you must consider the source. The fact that it was published by CBS/New York Times is enough for me to doubt its validity. Perhaps a better question would be, “Do our government leaders know where the money is going?”

  8. Joan Gillon says:

    Why am I never polled on anything? I’m an average American. When you see poll results, you must consider the source. The fact that it was published by CBS/New York Times is enough for me to doubt its validity. Perhaps a better question would be, “Do our government leaders know where the money is going?”

  9. Joan Gillon says:

    Why am I never polled on anything? I’m an average American. When you see poll results, you must consider the source. The fact that it was published by CBS/New York Times is enough for me to doubt its validity. Perhaps a better question would be, “Do our government leaders know where the money is going?”

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