During a Reddit question and answer session on Monday, Bill Gates asked:
How can we help more people understand that foreign aid isn't 25 percent or even 10 percent of the U.S. federal budget, but less than 1 percent?
Indeed, the level of foreign aid as a percentage of the federal budget is less than 1 percent. But Americans tend believe it is a much, much higher number, with just 4 percent correctly identifying its level as less than 1 percent of the federal budget:
Now, the majority of Americans believe too much is spent on foreign aid. But in many cases, that is surely based on their incorrect assumptions about what the level of foreign aid actually is. When told that foreign aid was 1 percent of the federal budget, a majority of Americans said that is about the right amount, or too little:
Why do Americans vastly overestimate the country's foreign aid spending?
Well for starters, percentages are pretty difficult to estimate, especially given the total size of the federal budget. The federal budget last year was $3.45 trillion, so 1 percent of that is $34.5 billion. That's a massive amount of money, percentages be damned. For reference, defense spending was $672 billion.
If people know that millions or billions of dollars is being spent on foreign aid, and are asked to estimate the percentage of the total budget that it makes up, they're not likely to say 1 percent, because 1 percent sounds like a relatively small amount of money.
There's also a lot of misinformation. Here's Glenn Beck from 2010, sermonizing about how America is "in the water," and arguing that foreign aid should be replaced with "teaching morals, values, ethics" to the world. Beck rattled off a list of countries receiving millions or billions in foreign aid without at any point giving context on how tiny America's foreign aid budget is as a percentage of the total budget. Here's Sean Hannity doing much the same thing, talking about aid to what Hannity called a "rogue regime in Cairo," again without mentioning how small a percentage of the federal budget aid is.