A Million Charts And Graphics To Say The Same Thing: Americans Don’t Like Foreign Aid

DiA at The Economist:

SOME highlights from this week’s Economist/YouGov poll:

• Little has changed when it comes to the health-care reform bill. Public opinion about the overall reform remains just about evenly divided, as it has for months. More than twice as many Americans think that their care will worsen under the bill than say it will improve, and more than half still expect to pay more because of it.

• Barack Obama’s overall rating remains below 50%. In this week’s poll, 46% approve of the way he is handling his job, while 47% disapprove.

• When asked which party would do a better job handling the budget deficit, Americans divide fairly evenly: 35% name the Democrats, 30% the Republicans, and 35% think they are about the same.

• When it comes to decreasing the deficit, cutting spending is a more popular approach than raising taxes, by a margin of 62% to 5%. And here’s what the public is willing to cut:

• Foreign aid makes up less than 1% of America’s total spending.

Annie Lowrey at The Washington Independent:

Today, an Economist/YouGov poll making the rounds shows that Americans would vastly prefer budget cuts to new taxes — by 62 percent to 5 percent. The poll goes on to ask Americans which government spending programs they would choose to cut: “If government spending is reduced in order to balance the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?” (Respondents could pick more than one thing to axe.)

Here is how they responded:

The most expendable programs, according to poll takers, were mass transit, housing, agriculture, environment and foreign aid, the runaway winner at 71 percent. The problem? These programs together barely comprise 3 percent of the federal budget. Even if the programs were entirely eliminated, the cuts would do nothing to solve the United States’ long-term entitlement program.  Indeed, the responses had no obvious correlation with spending size.

The red bars in this graph indicate expenditures in the various areas:

The poll highlights the conundrum: Americans want to solve the long-term deficit program and want the federal government to run a balanced budget. They are willing to make budget cuts. But the government cannot cut enough from discretionary programs to bring the budget into check and ultimately to reduce the deficit. (Half of Americans still believe the government can.)

Ezra Klein:

The only program that more than a third of the public wants to see cut is foreign aid. Bummer, then, that it accounts for less than a single percent of the budget.

But the fact that people want a smaller budget deficit but no reductions in actual spending is old news, and well accounted for in Congress. What’s interesting about this chart, however, is that a sizable minority of the population wants to cut defense spending. In fact, defense spending’s size of the budget and the number of people who want to cut it match up much more closely than most of the other two bars on the graph.

You can make too much of this, of course. Only about a quarter of the population wants defense spending cut. But given how terrified politicians are to touch defense spending — we even invented a category called “non-defense discretionary spending” in order to protect it — maybe it’s time to take another look. Washington may consider defense spending sacred, but the country doesn’t — at least not more than anything else.

Kevin Drum:

Ah, the American public. God love ‘em. The Economist asked if they’d rather tackle the federal deficit by cutting spending or raising taxes, and the runaway winner was cutting spending, by a margin of 62% to 5%. So what are we willing to cut? Answer: pretty much nothing.


there were only four areas that even a quarter of the population was willing to cut: mass transit, agriculture, housing, and the environment. At a rough guess, these areas account for about 3% of the federal budget. You could slash their budgets by a third and still barely make a dent in federal spending.

I suppose one of these days everyone’s going to have to figure this out. Apparently no time soon, though.

Jon Bernstein:

Just to pile on a bit, however: it’s even worse!  Not just because it turns out that the ideal point people pick for foreign aid turns out to be (if I remember correctly) something like 3% of the budget, which is far higher than the US actually spends.  But because if you break the category down, the same thing happens: the overall category (foreign aid) is unpopular, but the specifics are generally popular.  By far the biggest item is Israel, and Americans most love Israel, and think that the US should send them aid (the only poll I could find – bottom of the page — on this showed about half of respondents approved of current levels of military and economic aid, with a somewhat larger minority approving of cuts than the minority supporting increased levels).  I do suspect that voters probably would support cuts in aid to Egypt and Jordan, but the big increase in foreign aid in recent years is for fighting HIV in Africa, and (while I don’t have any numbers on it) I’m confident that voters are all for that spending.

I think the same is true in other categories, as well…”defense spending” is relatively less popular, but at least when I’ve asked students about it the only subcategory that wasn’t popular was new high-tech weapons, and that’s been fairly mixed.

Of course, a lot of this is incredibly soft, and so the results can be easily manipulated by changing question wording.  What’s more, when public opinion is inconsistent like this both sides are going to say that the public “really” supports them, but in fact what’s probably more accurate is to say that the public just doesn’t have rational opinions about a lot of things.  At any rate, anyone looking for logical consistency from voters on budget items is going to be very disappointed.

John Sides:

I want to suggest that the problem goes even deeper. The programs that make up the largest share of the federal budget are typically the ones that the fewest people want to cut. Consider this graph, in which I attempted to match most of the YouGov categories to a plausible counterpart in Obama’s FY 2010 budget proposal. (I drew on additional stories for information about the budgets for health research and highways. Foreign aid is estimated at 0.5% of the budget.)


As you move downward, into categories of spending that are increasingly popular, you get to the largest federal programs, particularly entitlement spending. Really, there is only one area of federal spending — national defense — that is sizable and that even a modest fraction (22%) is willing to cut.

In fact, there is a negative relationship between the budgetary share allocated to a policy area and the fraction who want to cut it. The correlation coefficient between the poll percentages and the budget percentages is -.33 (with or without the obvious potential outlier, foreign aid, included).

If Americans are forced to be specific, their recipe for cutting federal spending would do little to reduce spending.

Stan Collender:

There’s nothing new about this situation, of course,  Bruce reported remarkably similar results last December and it’s long been the case that the typical voter wants the deficit reduced without cutting spending or increasing taxes.  This latest poll shows that even the higher deficits of the past few years, which almost 60 percent of those responding said would be of great or some importance to them when they voted, hasn’t changed the situation at all.

Megan McArdle:

What I’d really like to see is a poll which reads off a list of the major areas in the federal budget, names the percent of the federal budget they compose, and then asks people which of these areas they think should be cut in order to close the deficit. Obviously, you couldn’t get too deep with this, since people can’t remember more than five or six numbers at a time. But the answer would be more interesting than noting that people with a poor command of the federal budget think we should cut the enormous fantasy programs they think are wasting all of our tax dollars.

Even more interesting would be if you paired this with some realistic tax math–if you made it clear to them that the budget gap also cannot be closed simply by raising taxes on “the rich”, but rather that it probably involves a broad-based regressive tax like the VAT.

But this would be very complicated, which is, I presume, why it hasn’t been done.

Josh Barro

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Filed under Economics, Entitlements, Foreign Affairs

One response to “A Million Charts And Graphics To Say The Same Thing: Americans Don’t Like Foreign Aid

  1. Pingback: Riding the Tiger « Some Academic Scribbler

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