Just One Percent

January 28, 2011 By John Glenn

As Congress debates deficit reduction, a poll released on Wednesday by Gallup/USA Today suggested that Americans are more in favor of cutting foreign assistance than other types of spending. The poll found that 59 percent would favor cuts to foreign assistance, compared to 42 percent for Homeland Security and 34 percent for Social Security.

This is not new, as polls repeatedly show that when you ask Americans to choose between programs, they tend to favor domestic ones. But polls consistently also show that Americans dramatically overestimate what we are spending on foreign assistance.

In December, a World Public Opinion poll asked Americans what percentage of the federal budget they thought went toward foreign assistance. The median answer: a whopping 25%. Second, the poll asked what percentage they thought should go to foreign assistance. Most respondents were quite generous, and the median answer came to about 10%.

The reality? We spend only 1% of the federal budget on foreign assistance.

The problem isn’t that we are spending too much on promoting global development, strengthening our alliances, and dealing with global threats. Rather, we must do a better job communicating the actual size and importance of our International Affairs budget. Most Americans may not know that National Security leaders from Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to Joint Chiefs Chair Mike Mullen, as well as 90 percent of currently serving or recently retired officers, believe the military alone is not enough to protect America, and we need the tools of development and diplomacy to keep us safe.

As one in five U.S. jobs is related to international trade and nearly half of our exports now go to the developing world, a strong and effective International Affairs budget is critical to our economic prosperity. And when we provide life-saving medications and education to people in the developing world, we are not only demonstrating the best values of America, but ensuring people have real opportunities to succeed.

At just 1% of the budget, this is a good return on investment.