• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Most Of What Americans “Know” About The Federal Budget Is Wrong

It’s going to be impossible to have a rational discussion about federal spending when it’s clear that the American people have no idea what the facts are:

If you think cutting the government’s budget is as easy as taking the ax to some unpopular federal programs, a new national poll suggests that you should think again.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Friday, most Americans think that the government spends a lot more money than it actually does on such unpopular programs as foreign aid and public broadcasting.

The poll’s release comes one week before current funding for the government runs out. If there is no budget agreement between congressional lawmakers by next Friday, some government programs and offices may shut down.

“The public has a better idea of how much the government spends on programs like Social Security and Medicare, but there is a related problem – cutting them has little public support,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. “The result: cutting unpopular programs would probably not cut the deficit very much, and cutting the deficit would probably require cuts in programs that Americans like.”

How bad is it?  Pretty bad:

  • “According to the poll, on average, Americans estimate that foreign aid takes up 10 percent of the federal budget, and one in five think it represents about 30 percent of the money the government spends. But the actual figure is closer to one percent, according to data from the Office of Management and Budget from the 2010 fiscal year’s $3.5 trillion budget.”
  • The public estimates that the government spent five percent of its budget last year on public television and radio. In reality, it’s about one-tenth of one percent.
  • “Americans think the federal government spent 10 percent of its 2010 budget on pensions and retiree benefits; the OMB figures indicate the real number is about 3.5 percent.”
  • Americans estimates of how much the Federal Government spends on food and housing assistance are “three to four times higher than the actual price tag.”
  • Those polled estimated that defense spending accounted for 30 percent of the budget, in reality it’s 19 percent.

Even where the public gets it right, the news isn’t good:

When we ask Americans to guess how much Social Security cost the government in 2010, the median estimate was 20 percent. Not bad, given that OMB figures indicate that Social Security represented 20.4 percent of the federal budget in 2010.

“Budget experts agree that cutting a target that big would be a good start toward getting the deficit under control. Problem is, 87 percent of people we surveyed don’t want to decrease the amount of money spent on Social Security – and four in ten would like to see that figure grow. The same is generally true for Medicare and Medicaid, which combined made up 19 percent of last year’s budget,” adds Holland.

It’s poll results like this, as well as the fierce resistance we’ve seen to even the modest budget cutting proposed by Governors like Chris Christie and Scott Walker and by the House GOP, that make me pessimistic about the possibility that we’ll be able to reach any kind of consensus about reigning in Federal spending and the size and scope of government until we get to the point where we’ve got no choice. Not only don’t the American people want to cut the things that we actually need to cut, they don’t even know how miniscule the areas they would like to see cut actually are. I’m not sure if this is willful ignorance or that people have just become so deceived by demagogues  that they aren’t thinking straight. Whatever the reason is, though, it’s a very dangerous kind of ignorance we’re playing with here.

 

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    I don’t think many had problems with Walker’s budget cuts–even the unions agreed to pension and salary cuts. They had a problem with him busting unions in the name of fiscal propriety, despite the fact that his measures did nothing to affect the budget.

    Of course Walker/Wisconsin has barely been covered by OTB, so its fair to see why you missed that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  2. James Joyner says:

    In fairness to the American public, defense spending actually is pretty close to 30% of federal spending, once you factor in non-DoD-budget spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the off-budget intelligence spending, most of which is actually under DoD.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. G.A.Phillips says:

    They had a problem with him busting unions in the name of fiscal propriety, despite the fact that his measures did nothing to affect the budget.

    How do you figure..

    It would have a great effect, but the main point was to gain control while saving the jobs of many of these neomarxist drones….

    Here is their solution for everything……

    lol…..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=661pi6K-8WQ&feature=player_embedded

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. ponce says:

    I think politicians of both parties prefer the public to be stupid about how their money actually gets spent.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Until more people have to pay income taxes, they won’t care that someone else’s taxes are paying for their “free” stuff. Let’s get those 50 million people who pay no income taxes paying something and let’s eliminate, say the Earned Income Tax Credit.

    Simply raising the age of full retirement for Social Security will work wonders. And having the Federal Govt. SELL some properties for cash will work too.

    There is NO one thing will do it fix, it takes a lot of things, but the most important: START NOW

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. TG Chicago says:

    According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Friday, most Americans think that the government spends a lot more money than it actually does on such unpopular programs as foreign aid and public broadcasting.

    Waaaait a second. Unpopular programs? Public broadcasting is not unpopular at all.

    National Survey Finds 69 Percent of Voters Oppose Congressional Elimination of Government Funding for Public Broadcasting

    CNN needs to correct that error.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. Wayne says:

    1% a hundred times over is 100%.

    It foolish to say we shouldn’t pick the low hanging fruits because it won’t “solve” the problem. The truth is it will help. Let us start with the obvious then continue from there. The whole “it is a mountain so let us not start with a shovel load or scope load but wait until we can move the whole mountain” is B.S.

    If you are not willing to start then it will never happen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. legion says:

    Right, Pechenga. We need to eliminate the EITC because we all know it’s the poor people who are hoarding all the money…

    Actually, this would be an even stupider idea that I thought it was at first… People who qualify for the EITC don’t have a huge amount of extra cash available after their bills are taken care of (sometimes none at all) – increasing the amount they pay in taxes would cut directly from their discretionary spending, reducing the amount of stuff they can buy, hurting the overall economy even more! That’s brilliant!

    Not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  9. MarkedMan says:

    We should start by raising taxes to match what we spend. As long as the Republicans insist on borrowing to pay for everything, and the Democrats run along after them with their tails wagging, the public has no idea what the cost of anything is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  10. MarkedMan says:

    Why is it that conservatives claiming to be fiscally responsible above all else are nonetheless unwilling to contemplate any cost savings that don’t put lower income owners in worse straits? If all you can get is the elimination of welfare for oil companies, and reduction in ethanol subsidies, and elimination of the sugar beet protection tariffs, the chopping of multi-billion dollar defense programs the Pentagon doesn’t want, why not just take those? What is it about money saved in ways agreeable to progressives is so repulsive?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. mantis says:

    What is it about money saved in ways agreeable to progressives is so repulsive?

    The right is not interested in limited government or financial responsibility at all. They are interested in pissing off liberals and making sure poor people suffer. That is their ideology.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  12. mantis says:

    Let’s get those 50 million people who pay no income taxes paying something and let’s eliminate, say the Earned Income Tax Credit.

    Hmm, what else is in the news today?

    CEO pay soars while workers’ pay stalls

    At a time most employees can barely remember their last substantial raise, median CEO pay jumped 27% in 2010 as the executives’ compensation started working its way back to prerecession levels, a USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found. Workers in private industry, meanwhile, saw their compensation grow just 2.1% in the 12 months ended December 2010, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Yeah, clearly what we need is for the poor to pay more. That’s the ticket.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. tom p says:

    1% a hundred times over is 100%.

    Wrong, wayne.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. tom p says:

    Not only don’t the American people want to cut the things that we actually need to cut

    I’m not sure if this is willful ignorance or that people have just become so deceived by demagogues that they aren’t thinking straight.

    Uhhhh Doug…. When was the last time you admitted that there is more than one way to deal with this problem? Or are you just being willfully ignorant?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. Greg says:

    The CNN article claims Americans overstate military spending (estimate 30% when it is really 19%), but the 19% is misleading in that it doesn’t include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Including those brings the cost up to 24% of budget. Including Veteran’s Affairs as well brings it up to 26% of budget.

    A guess of 30% of budget should be interpreted as the American public actually being very close in their estimate of how much we spend on the military.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. MM says:

    There is no downside to sounding like a deficit hawk politically.

    There is a tremendous downside to cutting things that your constituents like.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. mannning says:

    Regarding taxes, I do subscribe to the ‘stakeholder’ philosophy, which says that you will value that which you have a personal stake in, such as paying something into the pot, rather than freeloading. That something might not be so much per individual at the lower brackets, but it would carry the message of holding a real stake in the nation to them. If we do get to the point where a majority of our working citizens pay no taxes at all, and yet vote consistently for representatives that will spend and spend, we are going down the tubes.

    Every citizen should be a paying stakeholder, whatever the amount paid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. john personna says:

    I’m pretty sure Wayne is right that 100 times 1% but his problem is that there are not another 100 little easy to cut programs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. Wayne says:

    Why not start with the easy stuff?

    If you are not willing to start with the easy stuff, you won’t be willing to tackle anything harder.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. steve says:

    ” If we do get to the point where a majority of our working citizens pay no taxes at all”

    Nearly everyone pays payroll, state and local taxes. Some do get tax credits back negating that tax. What is interesting is that poor people dont vote, which would be the way to maximize their franchise (see elderly voters).

    To the larger issue, we should be cutting the spending that is causing our future debt, namely Medicare/Medicaid. Non-defense discretionary spending is not the source of future debt. The current cuts are too prone to cutting based upon partisan preference. Why cut Title X if you want to cut total spending?

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. tom p says:

    I’m pretty sure Wayne is right that 100 times 1% but his problem is that there are not another 100 little easy to cut programs.

    jp: I never figured you were as math challenged as wayne.

    A short tutorial:

    100- 1% (1)= 99
    99-1% (.99)= 98.01
    98.01- 1% (.9801)= 97.0299
    97.0299-1%(.970299) =96.059601

    You can subtract 1% a thousand times and never reach zero (hell…. you can subtract 99% a thousand times and never reach zero)

    Folks, math is fundamental. If you can’t do it….

    Don’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. tom p says:

    I’m not sure if this is willful ignorance or that people have just become so deceived by demagogues that they aren’t thinking straight.

    Doug, you are not answering.

    Let me be blunt: If you are not being willfully ignorant….

    Are you demagogueing(sp?)??? (boy, is that a word? an awful lot of letters there)

    Let me be even more blunt: If you are postulating that we can balance the budget thru budget cuts alone, you are either an idiot or a liar.

    The choice is yours.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. MarkedMan says:

    We need a reality based movement that picked a bunch of tax savings/loophole elimination that the vast majority would favor, left and right wingers, but are opposed by entrenched interests, and fought hard to enact them. Kind of like the tea party, but not based in fantasy land. Tax subsidies for oil companies. Taxing hedge fund managers pay as if it were capital gains instead of income. Heck, why should capital gains be taxed at half the rate of my salary in the first place?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. epistorese says:

    @ Manning: please remember that these “freeloaders” are paying 7% on 100 percent of their income in Social Security taxes while the CEO who got the 27% average pay increase noted in other posts is paying 7% on about a third (or less) of his income. While I agree that having a majority of the income earners paying no tax is detrimental to the country, so has been the process of lowering aggregate working class incomes into the zone where no tax is owed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. mantis says:

    If you take away 1% of current funding 100 times, that’s 100%. Not if you take 1%, then 1% of the resulting amount, etc. I’d bet the former is what they meant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. tom p says:

    And by the way, I suspect my understanding of the federal budget extends to, at best, app 3% of the budget…. I also suspect I am in th 99th percentile…. way above and beyond every congress critter we have ever elected to office.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. tom p says:

    If you take away 1% of current funding 100 times, that’s 100%. Not if you take 1%, then 1% of the resulting amount, etc. I’d bet the former is what they meant.

    Mantis, that may be what he meant, but that is not how math works. Kinda like the laws of nature… you can present the problem any way you want… but in the end gravity wins.

    Do you really think this country can run on zero income? Because that is what wayne proposes….

    but in the end…

    gravity wins.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. What most Americans know about _________ is mostly wrong.

    And?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. But, but, Social Security, lockbox, it isn’t general revenue… or has everybody been lying about it so long they can’t stop lying about it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Jay Tea says:

    tom p, that’s one way of interpreting jp’s statement, and a valid one. But it’s hardly the only one. If you define “1%” as “1% of the original amount,” then jp’s statement is entirely valid.

    And your condescension, at that point, is utterly unjustified and shows you as a condescending, arrogant prat.

    J.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. tom p says:

    Jay, I am only condescending when I am confronted by a completely ignorant ass…(JP is not one) like you.

    I repeat, if you can not do math…. don’t.

    Chemists answer to physicists…. phyisicists answer to mathemeticians…. mathemeticians…. well, they answer to God.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Jay Tea says:

    tom p, I repeat: your math is correct from a compounding perspective.

    The original statement did not put that forth as a given.

    You ASSUMED that it meant an annual redefinition of “1%,” and didn’t take into account that it could have meant “1% of the original amount.” Say, it was 1% of $4 billion — $40 million. In that case, the amount would be $40 billion/year, and yes, it would be an increasing percentage each year, but it would remain a constant — and derived from the original sum.

    And don’t get snotty with me about math, tom p. I can do more with Pythagoran triples in my head than you can with a calculator — including deriving several rules about them that you might have trouble even grasping.

    J.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0