Respondents Overestimate Amount U.S. Government Spends On Foreign Aid, Poll Finds

A recent poll found that respondents “vastly overestimate[d]” the amount the U.S. government spends on foreign aid, PBS NewsHour reports. “The median answer was roughly 25 percent, according to the poll of 848 Americans. In reality, about 1 percent of the budget is allotted to foreign aid,” the news service writes (Sullivan, 12/6).

The survey, conducted by the project at the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), also asked participants to describe what they felt “would be an appropriate percentage of the federal budget to go to foreign aid, if any,” according the survey questionnaire (.pdf), and “the median response [was] 10 percent,” according to a press release. “[O]nly 42 percent say that the amount it should be is 5 percent of the budget or less and only 20 percent say that it should be 1 percent or less. The percentage saying that foreign aid should be eliminated is quite small – just 10 percent of respondents,” the release states. The study also looked at responses based on political affiliation (11/29).

Clay Ramsay, director of research at PIPA, said of the survey results, “The primary reason for this (disparity) is the sense of ongoing involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror, including in Pakistan,” and the U.S. involvement in Haiti relief efforts, NewsHour writes. “They [Americans] assume there is some really immense foreign assistance effort, which of course is not true,” Ramsay said.

“Instead, it seems the line between foreign aid and foreign defense spending is being blurred. … The actual investment, when broken down, reveals that foreign aid is a small portion of the discretionary budget,” NewsHour writes. “[T]he Department of Defense is about 210 (times) larger than USAID and State combined, in personnel terms,” author David Kilcullen wrote in a new book on U.S. spending, according to the news service. “In budgetary terms, the mismatch is far greater, on the order of 350:1,” according to Kilcullen. 

“There is on the one hand an underlying perception that America’s contribution in the world is greater than it really is, but it also shows a willingness to make a significant contribution,” Ramsay said of the poll’s findings, according to NewsHour.

“Foreign aid is clearly on the chopping block these days,” James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, according to NewsHour. “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,” he said (12/6).

The poll, conducted between Nov. 6 and Nov. 15, 2010, chose participants “scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses,” and asked them to complete an online survey, according to the release. “For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection,” explains (11/29).

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