James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Foreign Aid Fallacies

by James M. Lindsay
December 1, 2010


The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland (PIPA) has just released the results of one of my favorite poll questions:  What percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid? PIPA has been asking this question for fifteen years now, and the result is always the same:  Americans have a grossly inflated sense of how many of their tax dollars go to foreign aid.

In its most recent survey PIPA found that the median estimate of the share of the federal budget devoted to foreign aid was 25 percent. [So half the respondents think the number is higher, and half think it is lower.]  That’s up from the 20 percent median estimate found in most previous polls.  Perhaps the higher number in this survey reflects more talk in the news media about aid to countries such as Afghanistan or Pakistan or Haiti.  Or perhaps it reflects the public’s tendency during hard economic times to worry that even more of their money is going overseas.

The punch line here, of course, is that only about 1 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.

Not surprisingly, the estimates vary by level of education

growing more accurate with higher levels of education. Among those with less than a high school education the median estimate was that foreign aid represented an extraordinary 45 percent of the budget, those with only a high school diploma 25 percent, those with some college at 20 percent.  However, even those with a college degree or higher still overestimate by a wide margin, with a median estimate of 15 percent of the budget.

Republicans (20 percent median estimate) are slightly more accurate than Democrats (25 percent) and Independents (25 percent as well).

When asked how much of the federal budget should go to foreign aid, the median response was 10 percent.  Optimists can read that result as meaning Americans want to increase foreign aid ten-fold.  Pessimists can read it as meaning that Americans want to cut foreign aid by 60 percent.

The public’s inflated sense of foreign aid spending helps explain why so many politicians are quick to volunteer aid programs for the budget axe.  (The fact that most people wrongly believe that all foreign aid is spent overseas doesn’t help either.)  And foreign aid is clearly on the chopping block these days.  The Simpson-Bowles budget plan would pare foreign aid by several  billion dollars.  The incoming House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, and the likely incoming chair of the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Kay Granger, have made it clear that they intend to reduce foreign aid.

As my colleague Michael Levi noted a few weeks ago, proponents of foreign aid need to figure out which programs they can and should protect.  A public with a grossly inflated sense of its own generosity abroad is not going to come to their rescue.

(Photo: Akhtar Soomro / courtesy Reuters)

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