Sunday, December 5, 2010

Aid and public opinion

The general political wisdom in Washington DC is that the public does not like foreign aid. However, it has long been known that the public does not actually know much about the U.S. aid program.

For example, surveys consistently find that while a majority of Americans would like to see the U.S. aid budget cut, a majority of Americans also wants the U.S. to give much more aid than it does. This apparent contradiction arises from the fact that most Americans believe the U.S. gives far more aid than it does.

The pattern has been familiar since 1995, when the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that the median estimate of the U.S. aid budget was 15% of the total federal budget, at a time when the actual outlay was a little under 1%. The median preferred share of the federal budget to be allocated to aid was 5% (i.e. on average 1/3 of what people thought was the current level but 5 times the actual current level).

A follow-up study in 2001 found "no decline in the public's extreme overestimation of the amount of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid." Indeed, in this second study the median estimate was that 20% of the federal budget went to aid, while the median desired allocation was 10% of the budget. Meanwhile, the actual aid budget had not changed much and continued to be just under 1%.

(The follow-up study also noted that in a different survey, 66% of respondents said that t00-high foreign spending was a "major reason the economy is not doing better than it is.")

Little has changed in the past decade, as poll results just published by World Public show. Indeed, the overestimation of U.S. aid continues to increase: now the median estimate of the share of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid is 27%, with the median desired allocation still at 10% (actual aid volume continues to be close to 1% of the federal budget).

The survey also found that the lower one's education attainment, the higher the median estimate of aid's share of the budget — "Among those with less than a high school education the median estimate was that foreign aid represented an extraordinary 45 percent." This may help account for the erroneous belief in some circles that it should be fairly easy to cut the federal budget in difficult economic times such as these. In practice, of course, even a complete elimination of the foreign aid program (something few people advocate) would have only a small impact on the deficit.


  1. How is the amount of foreign aid calculated? Is the amount of money spent on infrastructure and other projects in Iraq and Afghanistan counted in that percentage?

  2. International statistics on foreign aid refer to "official development assistance" (ODA) which has specific criteria (basically: must be all or part grant, and must have development as its goal). Afghanistan and Iraq are top US aid recipients and are a large part of the reason US aid has increased considerably since 2000 (the other main increase is due to expanded HIV/AIDS programs).

    ODA to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years has accounted for roughly one fourth of total US ODA. But it is only a fraction of the amount of money the U.S. spends on those countries.

    According to the Congressional Research Service, 94% of that spending is through the Department of Defense (not considered aid), and the remaining 5% is divided among foreign aid, embassy operations, and medical care for veterans.