Voter Ignorance Threatens Deficit Reduction

Voter Ignorance Threatens Deficit Reduction

Nick Bhardwaj/The Fiscal Times

It is a well known fact among budget analysts that Americans have long had cognitive dissonance about government spending. They say they want it cut and for government to be smaller. But when questioned about specific programs, people mostly oppose cutting just about anything and often favor increases. Foreign aid is the only program that they consistently favor cutting, perhaps because of grossly overestimating its share of the budget. Recent polls confirm these observations and raise serious questions about whether there is any possible way of getting the political support for reducing the deficit and stabilizing the debt.

A February 1, 2011, YouGov poll found only one program, culture and the arts, on which a majority of people are willing to spend less. Even after they were told the harsh consequences of continuing to run large budget deficits, it had no significant impact on the results.

A January 26, 2011, Gallup poll found 59 percent of people favoring cuts to foreign aid, but a majority oppose cutting any other programs. These include funding for education (67 percent opposed), Social Security (64 percent), Medicare (61 percent), defense (57 percent), homeland security (56 percent), anti-poverty programs (55 percent), aid to farmers (53 percent), or the arts (52 percent). Even among Republicans, there was majority support for cutting only one program other than foreign aid; 56 percent would cut funding for the arts.

A January 25, 2011, CNN/Opinion Research poll found a strong 71 percent of people want to reduce the size of government. When questioned about specifics, foreign aid again topped the list, with 81 percent favoring cuts. But only two other programs got majority support; 61 percent of people would cut the pensions of government workers and 56 percent would cut welfare programs. Large majorities oppose cuts in veterans’ benefits (85 percent oppose cutting), Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), education (75 percent), Medicaid (70 percent), aid to the unemployed and public works (both 61 percent). People were roughly split on defense.

A January 12, 2011, Ipsos/Reuters poll, found that 75 percent of people say foreign aid should be cut, but the only other programs that a majority of people favor cutting are the budgets of the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission. A strong majority oppose cutting Medicare, education, Social Security, and most any other program that involves significant spending except national defense, on which people are roughly split.

One possible explanation for these results is that people really don’t know the composition of government spending. For example:

A February 1, 2011, Rasmussen poll found that only 58 percent of Americans know that the U.S. spends more on national defense than any other country; in fact, it spends almost seven times as much as the country with the second largest defense budget, China. And only 40 percent of people know that a majority of federal spending goes to national defense, Social Security and Medicare; 38 percent do not believe this is true.

A November 30, 2010, poll by found that when people were asked what percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the mean (average) response was 27 percent and the median was 25 percent. When asked how much of the budget should go to foreign aid, the mean response was 13 percent and the median was 10 percent. Actual spending is well less than 1 percent. And these figures are not anomalous; a 2001 poll found roughly the same results.

A November 18, 2010, Pew poll asked people which of these four programs the government spent the most on: national defense, education, Medicare, or interest on the debt. Only 39 percent correctly answered national defense. The second most common answer was interest on the debt, with 23 percent of people ranking it first. In fact, spending for interest is well less than half that spent on Medicare, which 15 percent of people ranked first. Education spending is the budget function with the lowest spending, but 4 percent of people thought it was the largest. More Republicans underestimated defense spending than Democrats, which may help explain the former’s consistent support for higher defense spending. Republicans also were more likely to overestimate interest on the debt, which may help explain why they tend to be more vocal than Democrats on balancing the budget and reducing the national debt.

A March 15, 2010, Zogby poll found that three-fourths of people underestimated Social Security’s and Medicare’s share of the budget, three-fifths underestimated the share going to national defense, 70 percent of people grossly overestimated the share going to foreign aid and to education, three-fourths overestimated the share going to interest on the debt, and almost 40 percent overestimate the percentage of the budget for non-defense discretionary programs.

A September 15, 2009, Gallup poll found that people believe an average of 50 cents out of each dollar spent by the federal government is wasted. This suggests that people think spending could easily be cut 50 percent without reducing government benefits or impairing the government’s ability to do its job. A September 27, 2010, BBC poll found that people in just about every country have similar views on how much government spending is not used in the public interest, ranging from a low of 34 percent of the budget in Spain to a high of 74 percent in Colombia.

Such ignorance is also common at the state level. A January 27, 2011, poll from the Public Policy Institute of California asked people to rank state spending on these four items: K-12 public education, higher education, health and human services, and prisons and corrections. Only 16 percent of people correctly ranked K-12 education first, even though it consumes 42 percent of the California state budget. An outsized 45 percent of people ranked prisons and corrections first, but it consumes only 10 percent of the budget, the smallest share of the four items. Twenty-seven percent thought health and human services spending was the largest item, but at 30 percent of the budget it ranks second. Finally, 6 percent of people ranked higher education spending first, but it consumes only 13 percent of the state budget.

Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to overstate spending on prisons and corrections, while Republicans were more likely to overstate spending for health and human services. Both parties were about equally likely to grossly underestimate K-12 education spending.

The PPIC poll also had data on misperceptions about how California raises its revenue. People were asked to rank these revenue sources in terms of their importance: personal income tax, sales tax, corporate tax, and motor vehicle fees. Only 29 percent of people correctly ranked the personal income tax first, even though 50 percent of state revenue comes from this source. Twenty-nine percent of people thought the sales tax came first, but it accounts for only 29 percent of revenue. Twenty percent thought motor vehicle fees were the state’s largest revenue source, when in fact it is the smallest, raising just 2 percent of revenue. And 16 percent of people thought the corporate tax came first, but it is actually in third place, raising 12 percent of state revenues. Republicans and Democrats gave roughly the same answers on this question.

Similar misperceptions exist at the federal level as well, where polls consistently show that people grossly overestimate the tax burden. Not surprisingly, Tea Party members tend to be more likely than other Americans to believe that taxes are higher than they really are. Peoples’ tax ignorance is best illustrated by this 2010 poll.


On average, about what percentage of their household incomes would you guess most Americans pay in federal income taxes each year – less than 10 percent, between 10 and 20 percent, between 20 and 30 percent, between 30 and 40 percent, between 40 percent and 50 percent, or more than 50 percent, or don’t you know enough to say?

Tax Percentage/Income All Tea Party Members Actual, 2010
Less than 10% 5% 11% 86.5%
10% - 20% 26% 25% 12.9%
20% - 30% 25% 26% 0.6%
30% - 40% 10% 14% 0.6%
40% - 50% 2% 3% 0.6%
More than 50% 1% 1% 0.6%
Don’t know 31% 15% n/a
Sources: CBS News/New York Times poll, April 14, 2010, question 54; Joint Committee on Taxation p. 45.

As one can see, only 5 percent of people know that most Americans, more than 86 percent, pay less than 10 percent of their income in federal income taxes. About a quarter of people think that most Americans pay between 10 and 20 percent to the government in income taxes, while actually only 13 percent of people pay that much. And 38 percent of people think that most Americans pay an effective federal income tax rate of more than 20 percent. In reality, less than 1 percent of people pay that much.

Presumably, if people simply had better information they would make better judgments. It certainly seems obvious that if people didn’t grossly overestimate foreign aid spending they would be less inclined to think that is the only program worthy of cutting. Perhaps then they would pay more attention to the really important contributors to deficit spending such as Medicare.

Unfortunately, the political science literature suggests that it may not matter. Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens examined the effect of political ignorance on political opinions and found that giving people correct information had little impact on their political judgments. “Policy-relevant facts seem to carry little weight,” he found. This conclusion is confirmed by the Ipsos/Reuters poll cited earlier. When people were asked their views on raising the debt limit and cutting various programs, and then given factual information about the impact, it had virtually no effect on their opinions. Indeed, a 2010 paper by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that giving people correct information not only had little effect on changing their misperceptions, in some cases it actually increased them.

I don’t know the answer to this problem. I would like to believe that most people will make the right decisions given the correct information. If that is not the case, then we have a far more serious problem than just the budget deficit. It calls into question the fundamental basis of democracy itself.

Related Links: 
House GOP Proposes Deep Agency Budget Cuts (Washington Examiner)
Democrats Hype Government Shutdown (Politico)
House Proposes $74 Billion in Cuts (Los Angeles Times)