Why It’s So Hard to Cut the Federal Budget

by John Sides on April 8, 2010 · 20 comments

in Political Economy,Public opinion

A new Economist/YouGov poll asked people “If government spending is reduced in order to balance the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?” Respondents could check all that apply.

Not surprisingly, as Kevin Drum noted, few people wanted to cut most programs. The exception was foreign aid, which, as The Economist pointed out, makes up a tiny fraction of the budget. Jon Bernstein is skeptical that people would be that opposed to foreign aid if they knew where it went (e.g., a significant chunk to Israel).

I want to suggest that the problem goes even deeper. The programs that make up the largest share of the federal budget are typically the ones that the fewest people want to cut. Consider this graph, in which I attempted to match most of the YouGov categories to a plausible counterpart in Obama’s FY 2010 budget proposal. (I drew on additional stories for information about the budgets for health research and highways. Foreign aid is estimated at 0.5% of the budget.) Of course, Obama’s budget proposal is not the ultimate budget, but the comparison between it and the poll is still instructive:


As you move downward, into categories of spending that are increasingly popular, you get to the largest federal programs, particularly entitlement spending. Really, there is only one area of federal spending—national defense—that is sizable and that even a modest fraction (22%) is willing to cut.

In fact, there is a negative relationship between the budgetary share allocated to a policy area and the fraction who want to cut it. The correlation coefficient between the poll percentages and the budget percentages is -.33 (with or without the obvious potential outlier, foreign aid, included).

If Americans are forced to be specific, their recipe for cutting federal spending would do little to reduce spending.

UPDATE: Annie Lowrey had the same idea.

[Hat tip to Matt Dhaiti for sending me the poll.]


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