On Cutting Foreign Aid

April 8, 2010 By Jordan Smith

As Congressional Budget Committees get ready to take up the President’s FY 2011 International Affairs Budget request, the misperceptions about American foreign assistance spending continue.  According to a new Economist/YouGuv poll out just this week, foreign aid is the most popular area to look for spending cuts.  In the poll, 71% of online respondents agreed that ‘Foreign Aid’ should receive lower federal funding than it currently does.  However, the Economist points to the interesting and correct fact that “Foreign aid makes up less than 1% of America’s total spending.”  There is simply not much to cut!

The president has noted this recently. In a discussion on jobs and the economy in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week, President Obama said that “A lot of people think if you just eliminated foreign aid we could balance the budget.” In fact, “Foreign aid accounts for about 1.5 to 2 percent of the budget,” Obama observed. (The Administration’s $58.5 billion FY11 International Affairs Budget request represents only 1.4% of the entire federal budget.)

The online poll comes on the heels of other research showing that foreign aid is consistently among the most commonly given responses when people are asked to identify a program from which to cut spending.  Americans routinely overestimate the amount of foreign assistance the United States provides to the rest of the world, with a 2001poll showing that half of all Americans thought foreign aid comprised at least 20 percent of the budget– and the average responder believing it was a whopping 25 percent.

If Americans had a more precise understanding of funding for our development and diplomacy programs, along with an understanding of the economic and national security benefits they bring, public approval of cuts to these meager but vital programs could well disappear.