Americans vastly overestimate U.S. foreign assistance

December 3, 2010 By Joel Paque


A new poll shows Americans continue to vastly overestimate the amount of foreign assistance given by the United States.  Conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, the November poll finds the median estimate of the percentage of the federal budget most Americans think is spent on foreign aid is 25%.  When you ask Americans how much would be appropriate to spend on foreign assistance, the median response is 10%.   In fact, only a little over 1% of the federal budget currently goes to foreign assistance.

These findings echo previous surveys going back over a decade, but this recent survey saw the largest yet estimate of foreign assistance, up from 20% in 2004. Steven Kull, PIPA director, attributes this increase since 2004 to public awareness over aid expenditures in Afghanistan and Haiti.  He also noted that, although assistance levels have increased since 9/11, the public still doesn’t have an accurate perception of aid spending, saying,  “There have been some increases in foreign aid under both Presidents Bush and Obama, but, of course, nowhere near to the perceived level.”

The overestimation of our foreign assistance holds true across the political spectrum.  Those who identified as Republicans overestimated our foreign assistance somewhat less, with the mean response of 20%, while the mean response from those who identified as Democrats and Independents was 25%.  When asked how much of the budget should go to foreign aid, the mean for Republicans was 5%, whereas for Democrats and Independents it was 10%.

Coming at a time when serious discussions are taking place on how to reduce the federal deficit, these results suggest most Americans would support spending much more than we actually do.