Program on International Policy

Americans on the Federal Budget

(Sept. 2000)

Executive Summary

Every year Congress makes up a federal budget. This study seeks to understand how average Americans would allocate the federal budget. When the public is faced with the trade-offs between different budget priorities, as well as between short-term and long-term goals, what decisions does the average American make?

The study focused on the discretionary budget -- that portion of the budget that is not dictated by existing laws (e.g. for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), but is decided on each year in Congress. In addition respondents were asked how they would allocate the surplus -- on-budget and from Social Security.

The Center on Policy Attitudes (COPA) and Knowledge Networks collaborated to develop an innovative internet-based methodology that allowed respondents to see how the current discretionary budget is allocated and to make to make their preferred allocations.

The survey was conducted with a nationwide sample of 721 adults conducted via the Internet, using Knowledge Networks’ web panel (margin of error +/-3.7%). Because the Knowledge Networks panel is derived from a random sample selection process that is not limited to those who already have Internet access, it is a truly representative national sample.

The survey was conducted July 14-26, 2000. A follow-up survey of 577 of the original respondents was taken July 28-August 6, 2000.

In addition to conducting the Internet survey with Knowledge Networks, COPA also conducted several focus groups around the country, specifically in Richmond, Virginia; Cleveland, Ohio; and Frederick, Maryland.


Allocating the Discretionary Budget
1. By far, the largest reallocation of the discretionary budget change, in dollar terms, was a dramatic reduction in defense spending -- on average by 24%.

2. The areas of the budget to receive the highest dollar increase were related to “human capital.” These included educational programs -- federal support to education and job training -- and medical research. The area receiving the highest percentage increase was the reduction of the national debt. Spending on the environment and space and science research rose modestly, while spending on transportation was nearly flat. The federal administration of justice was the only item other than defense to be cut significantly.

3. Overall, respondents modestly increased spending on international programs. The United Nations and UN peacekeeping received the highest percentage increase of all programs in the discretionary budget, while the State Department and humanitarian and economic aid received modest increases. Military aid was slightly reduced.

Allocating the Surplus
4. For the surplus overall, more than 70% of the money was devoted to the long-term goals of shoring up Social Security and Medicare or paying down the national debt. Just under 30% went to the short-term goals of tax relief or new spending.

5. When posed the problem of needing to begin repaying the Social Security Trust Fund in the future, an overwhelming majority wanted to pay back the Trust Fund by cutting future spending, rather than through increased taxes or new debt.

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