Voter Ignorance Threatens Deficit Reduction

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 favour increases.

Foreign aid is the only program that they consistently favour cutting, perhaps because they grossly overestimate 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 Feb. 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 of the harsh consequences of continuing to run large budget deficits, it had no significant impact on the results.

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

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

A Jan. 12, 2011, Ipsos/Reuters poll found that 75 per cent of people say foreign aid should be cut, but the only other programs that a majority of people favour 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 defence, 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 Feb. 1, 2011, Rasmussen poll found that only 58 per cent of Americans know that the U.S. spends more on national defence than any other country; in fact, it spends almost seven times as much as the country with the second largest defence budget, China. And only 40 per cent of people know that a majority of federal spending goes to national defence, Social Security and Medicare; 38 per cent do not believe this is true.

A Nov. 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 per cent and the median was 25 per cent. When asked how much of the budget should go to foreign aid, the mean response was 13 per cent and the median was 10 per cent. Actual spending is well under 1 per cent. And these figures are not anomalous; a 2001 poll found roughly the same results.

A Nov. 18, 2010, Pew poll asked people which of these four programs the government spent the most on: national defence, education, Medicare or interest on the debt. Only 39 per cent correctly answered national defence. The second most common answer was interest on the debt, with 23 per cent of people ranking it first. In fact, spending for interest is well less than half that spent on Medicare, which 15 per cent of people ranked first. Education spending is the budget function with the lowest spending, but 4 per cent of people thought it was the largest. More Republicans underestimated defence spending than Democrats, which may help explain the former’s consistent support for higher defence 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 defence, 70 per cent 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 per cent overestimate the percentage of the budget for non-defence discretionary programs.

A Sept. 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 per cent without reducing government benefits or impairing the government’s ability to do its job. A Sept. 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 per cent of the budget in Spain to a high of 74 per cent in Colombia.

Such ignorance is also common at the state level. A Jan. 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 per cent of people correctly ranked K-12 education first, even though it consumes 42 per cent of the California state budget. An outsized 45 per cent of people ranked prisons and corrections first, but it consumes only 10 per cent of the budget, the smallest share of the four items. 20-seven per cent thought health and human services spending was the largest item, but at 30 per cent of the budget it ranks second. Finally, 6 per cent of people ranked higher education spending first, but it consumes only 13 per cent 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 per cent of people correctly ranked the personal income tax first, even though 50 per cent of state revenue comes from this source. 20-nine per cent of people thought the sales tax came first, but it accounts for only 29 per cent of revenue. 20 per cent thought motor vehicle fees were the state’s largest revenue source, when in fact it is the smallest, raising just 2 per cent of revenue. And 16 per cent of people thought the corporate tax came first, but it is actually in third place, raising 12 per cent 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.

This post originally appeared at The Fiscal Times.

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