Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
The spending priorities of everyday Americans is not what’s reflected in the massive federal budget, according to a survey of 1,000 Americans taken last month which found overwhelming support for cutting defense and investing in education, science, transportation and a range of human services.
“Interestingly, Americans had very different ideas about how that mandatory money should be allocated compared to how it’s spent today,” the GovSpend.com study said. “Men and women believed less money should be spent on Social Security and Medicare, while spending on programs for veterans, food and agriculture, and transportation should roughly double.”
“As for discretionary funding? Americans thought military spending should be cut in half and education, science, and energy and environment deserved to be roughly doubled or more,” it said. “According to the 2018 fiscal budget, Department of Defense spending will equate to over $639 billion, while education will account for $59 billion.”
These findings don’t fit neatly within Democratic or Republican orthodoxies. As a party, Democrats believe that earned benefits like Social Security should be preserved and expanded to match costs of living increases. Republicans, as a party, back increased military spending, whether current threats are looming or not.
However, the survey’s findings are particularly timely because in two weeks Congress will face its fourth deadline since September 30 to pass a 2018 budget. Before October 1, when the federal fiscal year begins, Congress passed the first of three so-called continuing resolutions to keep government level funded from 2017’s budget. The last of those resolutions expires on Friday, January 19.
The GovSpend survey found most Americans really don’t know how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars—as broken down by percentages, which then serve as a basis for assessing whether that allocation is too much, too little or about right.
Their survey looked at the two major budget categories. First is mandatory or non-discretionary spending, which includes interest on the federal debt, Social Security (which is funded by employee payments into a dedicated trust account) and Medicare, which is the federal health program for those 65 and over. Second is the discretionary budget categories, which include the military and everything else: health, science, transportation, agriculture, education, human services, etc.
“When guessing how U.S. dollars were spent, Americans believed overall spending was more evenly dispersed than it actually was,” GovSpend’s survey said. “While they estimated a little over 48 percent was being used toward Social Security and Medicare combined, Social Security actually equated to nearly 49 percent of the budget on its own. They also guessed veterans benefits (which include general compensation, insurance, and pensions) would account for almost 11 percent of federal mandatory spending; however, it only added up to less than 4 percent of the actual budget.”
“Discretionary spending was equally as skewed by most Americans’ perceptions,” their report continued. “Guessing the budget for military spending was only half its actual cost, most people believed spending in other areas was significantly more compared to reality. People assumed international affairs and government spending were higher, but the federal budget allocated roughly half of what Americans expected for transportation and sciences and nearly one-fifth of what they guessed for food and agriculture.”
Where there was broad agreement, however, was the military budget was simply far too big.
“Roughly 3 in 4 Americans are afraid of the potential for a full-scale war with North Korea, but according to our survey, the average Democrat or Republican believes the U.S. commits too much of the national budget to military spending,” GovSpend said. “Based on 2016 expenditures, the U.S. spent $611 billion on defense spending – the most in the world and more than the eight countries that followed (including China and Russia) combined.”
The study also found that Americans want a big and functional government, although, as expected, the respondents’ political philosophies differed on priorities.
“Research has found more Americans favor bigger government over a smaller presence and more spending on public services like education and infrastructure,” GovSpend said. “While surveyed Americans of all political persuasions said education should be the second highest expense in discretionary spending,the average Democrat indicated educational expenses should be the highest compared to the other political affiliations (at just over 13 percent). Today, funding for education accounts for 6 percent of the national discretionary budget.”
They continued, “Republicans were the only group to suggest veterans benefits were deserving of more funding than Medicare and health spending, and Independent voters believed spending for science and housing and community should be higher than what either Democrats or Republicans allocated.”
Not surprisingly, GovSpend also found spending priorities differed on generational lines, reflecting the challenges facing age groups.
“According to our poll, the top spending priority was different for each generation,” they said. “According to millennials, education deserved the biggest increase (over 7 percent). Research suggests education and careers may be more important to today’s millennials than getting married or even having children. While Gen Xers wanted to see the largest adjustments applied to Medicare and health spending, baby boomers wanted Social Security spending to increase by over 5 percent.”
Matt Dennis, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee Democratic members, said GovSpend’s survey results underscore a point he frequently makes: the priorities many people want to see supported are a fraction of federal spending.
“To me, what is most revealing with this type of numbers is the extremely small amount of money that’s spent on non-defense priorities, that is not mandatory or the military,” he said. “It is one-sixth of the federal budget—health, education, housing, research, water, and more: everything that people are concerned about.”
As the House and Senate budget negotiations resume in coming days and approach the January 19 federal funding cutoff date, Americans will get another chance to see if their government reflects their priorities. If GovSpend’s survey is accurate, it suggests Americans across the political spectrum will be disappointed.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).