What We Think We Spend

(And What We Really Spend)

If anything good is to come of all the fulmination about the federal budget, it wouldn’t hurt to begin with some understanding of what we actually spend. It’s not what most people think we spend.

Here are a few figures about what conservatives think the proportions of our budget are, gathered from here and there.

Item Estimate Actual Overestimate
Foreign Aid 27% 0.6% 45X
Public Broadcasting 5% 0.01% 500X
Federal Pensions 10% 3.5% 2.86X
Food & Housing 3X-4X

Here’s the total part of a tax dollar we spend on the following ten items:

  • Children’s health insurance
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance
  • Section 8 (Housing Vouchers, 1937)
  • Community Development Block Grants
  • WIC (Women, Infants, Children; nutritional assistance)
  • Veterans Medical Services
  • Head Start
  • Weatherization Assistance
  • International Development & Humanitarian Assistance

The sum of all these is (ta-da!) $0.1078 (10.78¢). The largest of these is Veterans Medical Services, at 1.3¢. All the rest are less than a penny each out of our tax dollar. (National Priorities Project)

I made the following chart using data from the National Priorities Project and Off the Charts, two good sources for data about government money. This chart is best thought of as a proportional chart. That is, the relative lengths of the bars are what is important.

Note that the top items are military, health, debt interest, and income security. The rest are considerably less. Income security is unusually high because of the recession. The items most overestimated are foreign aid and “income security”, which includes Social Security. Even though this item is high, overestimates are still higher. Conservatives should find no disagreement from liberals that adjustments must be made if we are to prevent poverty in old age and provide adequate health care for all.

As you read about this stuff, it quickly becomes clear that people, particularly conservatives, have a distorted view of what we actually spend. Their top priority for cutting is foreign aid, which most estimate as 10% of the budget. The actual figure is under 1%. Income security is overestimated by almost 100%. Cutting foreign aid would have no significant effect on the budget.

They also believe our taxes are close to the highest on the planet. Actually, our taxes are quite low, about half of what the best places to live pay. In complete disregard of this fact, Republicans stand up on the floor of congress each week and declare that taxes are crushing us.

Where does all this misinformation come from? I think there are several sources. First are the conservative news media, particularly Fox TV, which is where most conservatives get their news and information. Fox has again and again presented slanted and partial information that distorts the facts. Second are various conservative speakers, everyone from congresspersons who speak complete falsehoods on the floor, to conservative news media and conservative pundits.

Once faulty information is out there, it is all but impossible to correct.

Published in: on 2011/05/02 at 6:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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