As President Barack Obama and lawmakers spar over huge federal deficits, they’re confronted by a classic contradiction: Most Americans want government austerity, a new survey shows—but they also want increased spending on a host of popular programs, with education at the top of the list.
The newly released General Social Survey asked people whether they believe spending in specific categories is “too much,” ”too little,” or “about right.” It covers the public’s shifting priorities from 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, through 2012 with Obama in the White House.
“Despite a dislike of taxes, more people have always favored increases in spending than cuts,” wrote the survey’s director, Tom W. Smith, of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.
While people’s priorities shift over the years, they’ve not changed on one category: Foreign aid has been stuck firmly in last place since the survey began. Last year, 65 percent of those surveyed thought there was “too much,” 25 percent checked “about right,” and a slim 11 percent said “too little.” The numbers have not changed much from 1973, when 73 percent said too much on foreign aid, 22 percent just right, and 5 percent too little.
Various polls have consistently shown the public believes foreign aid is a far bigger slice of the spending pie than it actually is.
Foreign aid amounts to loose change, hovering for years at 1 percent or less of the federal budget, compared with defense spending and “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those are among the biggest deficit drivers and a focal point in Washington’s recent budget debates. The survey shows the public is largely opposed to cuts in entitlement programs but tilts toward cuts in the defense budget.
To reach all these conclusions, Smith devised an index that boils down his findings to a single number for each category. If everyone favored more spending for a given program area, the maximum score would be +100; if everyone wanted less spending, the score would be a negative number, -100.
On this scale, top-ranked “improving education” in 2012 scored +68.4, while bottom-rated foreign aid scored a -60.4.
Support for defense spending has swung back and forth between negative and positive over four decades. It posted a -28.4 in 1973 near the end of the politically divisive Vietnam War, turned positive in 1978 and peaked at +48.9 in 1980. It returned to negative territory from 1983 to 2000. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks and the start of the war in Afghanistan, support for more defense spending again went positive—through 2004. It turned negative again as U.S. military involvement in Iraq increased and has been negative ever since.
Conversely, Social Security has always been in positive territory. Most people have favored increased spending on this program since the mid-80s, with the exception of 1993 and 1994.
(Next page: How other issues fared on the survey)