Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

We all have opinions about the federal budget and how it should be spent. Infrequently, those opinions are informed by some knowledge about where the money actually goes. It turns out that most people don’t have a clue. What about you? Here, take this poll/quiz and then compare your answers to (1) what other people said, in a CNN poll that asked about these same items and (2) compare your answers to the real answers.

Quiz is below the fold.

The questions below are from a CNN poll.


Think about all the money that the federal government spent last year. I’m going to name a few federal programs and for each one, I’d like you to estimate what percentage of the federal government’s budget last year was spent on each of those programs.

  1. Medicare — the federal health program for the elderly
  2. Medicaid — the federal health program for the poor
  3. Social Security
  4. Military spending by the Department of Defense
  5. Aid to foreign countries for international development and humanitarian assistance
  6. Pensions and benefits for retired government workers
  7. Food and nutrition assistance for the poor, including the program that used to be known as food stamps
  8. Housing assistance for the poor
  9. Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding for public television and public radio stations
  10. Federal funding for elementary, secondary and higher education


Go ahead and make your selections. Answers are below (as best I could determine them by spending 15 minutes Googling), scrambled around to help you avoid looking at them until you’re ready to compare them to yours.

6) 3.5%; 8) 1.5%; 5) 1%; 2) 7%; 3) 20%; 1) 14%; 10) 2%; 7) 2%; 9) 0.1%; 4) 20%

Some of these questions don’t seem ideal for me, for the purpose of determining whether people know enough to have an informed opinion about whether various parts of the federal budget should be cut or increased or whatever. For instance, people might have an informed opinion about the total amount of government aid to the poor, without knowing the breakdown of how much goes to food assistance, how much to housing, and how much to direct payments. Similarly, it seems less than ideal to ask about only the Department of Defense component of the defense budget, where it might be more relevant to ask about the whole ball o’ wax (including the Veterans’ Administration, and the defense-related parts of the Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security, which together add a non-negligible amount).

At any rate, it is clear that most people in the U.S. have really ridiculous ideas about where the government spends its money. I hope this blog’s readers do a lot better; or, if you do worse, that you stay out of the debate!

12 thoughts on “Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

  1. I suppose I should have made it really explicit that if you click on a link to the CNN poll, you see the results, meaning how other people answered the question. Unfortunately the _right_ answers aren't shown there! Sheesh!

  2. I suppose I should have made it really explicit that if you click on the link to the CNN poll, you see the results, meaning how other people answered the question. Unfortunately the _right_ answers aren't shown there! Sheesh!

  3. It gets worse. The people who are most certain about their answers to factual questions like the above are the the most misinformed (Kuklinski et al. (2000)).

    Rather than weep, I tend to view this as an opportunity. Why are people so poorly informed and how can we encourage citizens to be better informed? The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that people are rarely called upon to use this information to their immediate benefit and they pay no penalty for being misinformed. It stands to reason that if citizens were more involved in the decision making process they would be more likely to seek out information or demand better civics education in public schooling. This is an assertion on my part, but I think it has the ring of truth. Getting citizens more involved is no easy task, so this only pushes the problem down a level, but I think it is more motivating than telling people to leave the political process.

  4. Your point's made, but this is misleading. The debate over social security/Medicare, for example, isn't about current payments, but long-term structural deficits. Policy debates are not about annual payments, but long term incremental cash flows. Once again, I don't disagree with your overriding point (e.g., foreign aid is a rounding error… for the US at least, it's effect overseas is more… ambiguous.)

    Love the blog!

  5. Another oddity is that the CNN medians sum to 137%, while your actuals sum to 71%.

    Is it really possible that 7% of respondents think public broadcasting is more than 50% of the budget?

  6. Chris, I think it's unlikely that people would be wildly wrong about the percentage of current pensions and benefits to government workers but have a good estimate of what it is likely to be in the future. Similarly for all the rest of the stuff.

    On a slightly different note: As many people have pointed out, if you look at the other question in the poll you'll see that for the items that most people correctly realize are a large part of the budget, most people want to keep spending about where it is, or increase it. The items they want to cut are the ones where they overestimate (often by a huge amount) how big they are.

    Tom, of course the actuals add to a lot less than 100%, they don't represent everything in the budget! I'm sure you realize that.

    As for the medians summing to way over 100%, the surprise is how very much higher the sum is, not that it differs from 100%. Even if each person had reasonable estimates (that add to less than 100%), the sum of the medians could still exceed 100.

  7. Didn't mean to criticize your sum at all!

    I agree with your diagnosis of the poll surprise. If you plot the poll medians against your actuals, people made decent guesses for the large share items. It's the little items that bloat the total. Perhaps people are using some kind of availability heuristic – "I've heard of that, so it must be at least 5 or 10%."

    I plotted the poll vs. your actuals, just for kicks.

  8. Michael:

    If you know these people, please suggest to them they get rid of all those decimal places. It makes it hard to follow.

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