Poll Suggests Conflicting Ideas About Public Knowledge of the Budget

One of the biggest challenges in getting public support for deficit-reduction measures has always been knowledge about the composition of the federal budget. After all, if people think that cutting foreign aid and government worker benefits is enough to solve our deficit issues, they will be skeptical of reforms to more popular areas of the budget or tax increases. A new CNN poll is another in a long line of polls that have attempted to gauge public knowledge of how their tax dollars are spent. Like many of these other polls, it attempts to show that the public significantly overestimates the size of several areas of the budget, especially among domestic discretionary programs.

CNN's poll asked 1,023 adults about how large they thought different areas of the budget were. They allowed respondents to pick any number they wanted in response to the questions, but presented their data in ranges (less than 1%, 1-5%, 6-10%, for example). They then computed the median response for how large each area of the budget was. As it turns out, the public has a pretty good idea of the size of Social Security but way overestimates the portion of the budget that is dedicated to certain other domestic spending, foreign aid, and defense.

Poll Responses vs. Actual Figures, Percent of Total Budget
Budget Category Most Common Range Median Response Actual 2010 Proportion (OMB)
Military More than 50% 30% 19%
Medicare 11-20% 20% 13%
Social Security 11-20% 20% 20%
Medicaid 11-20% 15% 8%
Education 1-5% 10% 3%
Foreign aid 1-5% 10% 1%
Government pensions 1-5% 10% 4%
Food assistance 1-5% 10% 3%
Housing assistance 1-5% 7% 2%
Public broadcasting 1-5% 5% 0.01%

Note: "Median response" column doesn't add to 100% because they are the median of different responses. Right column doesn't add to 100% because not all areas of the budget are included.

These type of results are not unusual. But if you break the numbers down further, looking at the ranges CNN gave, the results are not as bad as you might think.

Many of these domestic areas actually had a significant plurality of people guessing in the right range. Areas such as nutritional and housing assistance had about 40-45 percent of people guessing in the 1-5 percent range, with much smaller amounts guessing in other ranges. The same goes for money spent on education and government benefits, where about one-third guessed in the correct range. While these numbers could be better, we can't expect the public to be experts on the budget. But we also might say this is because the federal budget is so indigestible to most; as part of each year’s budget, the government could better serve the public with a more transparent and easier to understand summary of the distribution of spending and revenues, for example.

So while this poll suggests the idea we hear frequently--that the public does not really know the composition of the budget well--it may not be as bad as the poll makes it appear. There does seem to be a good base of knowledge among a significant portion of the public. Nonetheless, we can always continue to do a better job of educating the public about budgetary issues which have (and will continue to have) such a large impact on people's lives.