Voter Ignorance Threatens Deficit Reduction
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The Fiscal Times
February 4, 2011

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.

Bruce Bartlett’s columns focus on the intersection of politics and economics. The author of seven books, he worked in government for many years and was senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House.