Americans think federal government wastes more than half of tax revenues

Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke

A new Gallup poll finds, on average, Americans believe 51 cents out of every dollar the federal government spends is wasted, a new high since the question was first asked in 1979.

State and local government spending is less likely to be seen as wasted, but belief in how much of it is wasted has risen at about the same pace as belief in federal waste:

The elderly and people without postgraduate degrees are more likely to rate government waste as slightly larger, as well as self-identified Republicans, independents and conservatives.

The partisan perception over how much federal government spending is wasted is the reverse of what it was in 2001, under President George W. Bush, when Democrats on average thought more federal spending was wasted than Republicans did, suggesting who is in office affects perceptions of government waste.

The greater perception of government waste on average among those over age 65 contrasts sharply with the reality that a disproportionate amount of government spending goes to the elderly through Social Security and Medicare. As this graph from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows, federal government spending largely goes to defense and the military, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, safety-net programs and interest on the debt.

In the past, when pollsters have asked Americans which specific federal program they think should be cut, very little consensus emerges on which is most deserving. In January, Gallup found that bipartisan majorities of the public opposed cutting Social Security, Medicare, education and anti-poverty programs.

Foreign aid, which makes up less than one percent of the federal budget, was the most popular potential target of cuts. The biggest partisan difference was over defense spending, where Republicans are much less likely to support cuts.

As Gallup says in its own interpretation of the poll, “It is not clear whether Americans believe government wastes money because it spends on programs they believe are not needed, or because it does not spend money efficiently on programs, whether needed or not.” Nor does the poll say whether Americans believe mandatory or discretionary spending is more wasteful.

About two-thirds of state government spending is typically devoted to K-12 and higher education, Medicaid, transportation, anti-poverty programs and corrections. The remaining third varies by state, but is usually comprised at least somewhat by pensions for retired public sector workers.

The following CBPP graph shows average state government spending by area: