Government Spending

On What Do You Think The Government Spends the Most Money?


In the latest Reason-Rupe poll, respondents were asked to use their own words to list which things the federal government spends the most money on. Answers were categorized and coded and then compared with actual government spending data. These data display the first responses given to what the government spends the most money on. These data demonstrate that respondents' first responses overestimated spending for defense and the military and underestimated spending for mandatory spending programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, in part because they underestimated the spending to means-tested mandatory programs.

Source: Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables. 2011. Table 8.3 "Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category: 1962-2016"

UPDATE: For clarification I replaced the second pie chart with a table "Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Budget Enforcement." Survey respondent percentages should not be directly compared to the federal budget percentages. Instead, the table "Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Budget Enforcement" provides a context for which to interpret survey results.

Click here for full survey results.

Survey Methods

The Reason-Rupe Q3 2011 poll collected a nationally representative sample of 1200 respondents, aged 18 and older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia using live telephone interviews from August 9th-18th 2011. The margin of sampling error for this poll is ± 3 percent. The margin of error for the GOP presidential race numbers is ± 4.79%. Interviews were conducted with respondents using both landline (790) and mobile phones (410). Landline respondents were randomly selected within households based on the adult who had the most recent birthday. Sample was weighted by gender, age, ethnicity, and Census region, based on the most recent US Census data. The sampling frame included landline and mobile phone numbers generated using Random Digit Dialing (RDD) methods and randomly selected numbers from a directory-listed sample. Click here for full methodological details. NSON Opinion Strategy conducted the poll's fieldwork. View full methodology.


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  1. So you conducted a survey? Next thing you know a couple editors over there will write a book.

    1. If they write a book we will never hear about it here. They are so modest that way.

  2. So the answer is we need more welfare and more Obamanomics!

    1. And more war. War stimulates the economy. Ask Paul Krugman. WW III would end the depression in no time.

      1. we already won WW3 when the wall fell.

      2. Also, book burning, since that would make people buy replacement books and Kindles.

      3. War stimulates the economy.

        True. This is why Sudan, Congo, Rwanda and Gaza are some of the richest places on Earth.

  3. This News Hour piece fits in very nicely with this:

    1. ROBERT LERMAN: A good part of wealth is embodied in the right to your Social Security flow of income and also to the guaranteed health insurance that you get. That’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a typical person. And you multiply that by the number of persons, and you have got a lot of wealth.

      Take a lot of the people right here at this nursing home. Medicare is a source of wealth that finances their stay here.

      PAUL SOLMAN: People like Clare Devane and Dorothy Arnold.

      So you two were just sitting here while we were doing the interview. We didn’t discuss this before.

      Your point is?

      ROBERT LERMAN: How are you being financed here?

      WOMAN: Through Medicare and MassHealth.

      WOMAN: Me, too, Medicare and MassHealth.

      PAUL SOLMAN: So this isn’t your own private savings that’s paying for your room here?

      WOMAN: Some of my money came here, but then the Medicare took over and MassHealth.

      PAUL SOLMAN: How old are you?

      WOMAN: Ninety-four.

      PAUL SOLMAN: And, as Lerman would point out, the longer you live, the more wealth Medicare or Social Security represent. So Medicare is like a stash of wealth that you’re now drawing on.

      WOMAN: Right.

      WOMAN: Yes.

      WOMAN: That’s right.

      WOMAN: Wouldn’t be able to come here otherwise.

      WOMAN: That’s right.

      PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s your whole point?

      ROBERT LERMAN: That’s my whole point.

  4. I thought the answer was muffins.

    1. Ha! You beat me to it.

  5. “Graft” wasn’t an option?

  6. What’s “Non-Defnese” spending? Sounds wasteful.

  7. “Mandatory” my ass.

  8. So people think we spend twice as much on defense as we do, and half as much on welfare as we do.

    What’s “mandatory” spending? I thought that was the entitlements, but they are broken out separately.

    1. The Mandatory: Other has to be Medicare, and its a damn shame they didn’t just label it as Medicare, or at the very least lump Medicare and SS into a single category labeles Entitlements since a significant percentage of respondants (read: the 18% of Americans with a brain) correctly identified Entitlements as the lion’s share of federal spending. I can understand not putting Medicaid in that category though since it is a means tested program.

    2. “Mandatory” spending is anything that gets spent without an annual appropriation by Congress. That includes everything with multi-year funding, including ROADZ (paid for by Highway Trust Fund) and the vast majority of the Department of Agricultural spending. (The subsidies are mandatory; many of the free school lunch programs are discretionary.)

      1. Food stamps, however, are mandatory.

      2. The lion in the Mandatory other section is Medicare. That accounts for something in excess of 90% of “Mandatory: Other”‘s share of spending. It’s not a means tested program, and its not SS. That’s where they put it.

        As for multi-year spending projects like subsidies and highway funding, I suspect its still included in non-defense discretionary since it is appropriated by congress in a year and then distributed in accordance with congressional appropriations in subsequent years. It’s not a mandatory spending in the form of entitlements.

        1. No, the multiyear spending is distributed in accordance to formulas, not congressional appropriations. Congress can direct funds to certain projects, but highway funds and agricultural spending, as well as SNAP (Food stamps) are all considered mandatory spending because they’re distributed by rule and formula, not annual appropriations.

          This one is easy to Google.

    3. Where do you get that? It looks like 40% vs. 37% for defense.

      My question is whether nor not “Budget Enforcement” includes emergency appropriations.

      1. That 18% is NON-“defnese” spending.

        1. oops, my bad.

          Except that only brings more to light of how useless the second pie chart is. Fygar in a lower post linked to actual outlays, not merely “budgeted” outlays. While the accuracy of that chart is open to question, I’m still standing by defense spending being around 1/3 total – it is bullshit to, for example, pretend veterans benefits is anything other than military.

          1. Well, that’s not really true though, because those benefits are basically sunk, mostly fixed costs. Cutting military spending, and stopping current military action, would not do anything to cut current veterans benefits, and cutting veteran benefits would not affect current military actions.

            It could lower future veteran benefits, I suppose, by reducing the number of soldiers we need to keep active. But payouts to veterans are definitely not military costs. They’re a legacy of previous military costs.

  9. Does the govenrment-spending include tax breaks?

    IE: if you get a million dollar tax break for green-energy, does that count as a million dollar expenditure? My feeble brain believes it should be, but that would also be hard to count.

    1. If its an actual reduction in revenue, then no, it isnt government spending, its a reduction in revenue, just like any other tax cut.

  10. These data demonstrate that respondents’ first responses overestimated spending for defense and the military and underestimated spending for mandatory spending program…

    Except that they don’t. Just because 40% list defense first doesn’t mean they think it is 40% of the budget. Geez.

  11. So the correct answer when asked an open ended question on what the government spends the most money on would have been “Mandatory: Other”????? That’s not how I was taught to speak in grade 7 writing in English class.

    I think “defense/military/war” was actually the right answer.

    1. I think you meant “seventh grade”, eh?

    2. Yes. The complaint this post makes is bizarre. 40% of the people, when asked what the government spends the most money on, guessed “Defense”, which, according to the next chart, is pretty much in a 4-way statiscical tie. And 20% said ‘entitlements’, which is an excellent answer, considering that it’s actually a combination of two of the big categories in the 2nd chart. Looks like they did a pretty good job.

      From the post:

      These data demonstrate that respondents’ first responses overestimated spending for defense and the military and underestimated spending for mandatory spending programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, in part because they underestimated the spending to means-tested mandatory program.s

      That doesn’t seem to be a valid interpretation of the data, unless I am simply not understanding the post.

      1. Right. Though the 13% were also right, since they’re giving old people entitlements and defense contractors money to give them salaries and power.

        Also, not sure how Reason pulled together those sections, but about half of the DoE’s budget and the VA should fall under defense spending. The former is because the nuclear arsenal is managed by the DoE and the latter is because the VA is one of the benefits arms of the DoD.

  12. What is up with the spelling errors galore in the second chart?

  13. This article is highly misleading. The two pie charts show completely different data. They are not in any way comparable. There is no reason to believe that the respondents’ first choices should correlate with the actual amount spent.

    The survey does not “demonstrate that respondents’ first responses overestimated spending for defense and the military.” The forty percent of the people surveyed who listed defense spending were, in fact, CORRECT. According to the government data you cite, defense spending IS one of the largest items in the federal budget, tied for first place with Social Security.

    To better understand how wrong your analysis is, imagine that your survey only inclulded budget experts who know that defense spending is 19% of the federal budget. Among that group of participants, the “War/Defens/Weapons” category would be close to 100%. So the more knowledgable the survey participants are, the greater the difference between the two pie charts.

    1. Wrong.

      Entitlements was the catch all response for SS/Medicare/Medicaid. Adding up the “mandatory” spending sections, entitlement programs account for 55% of total federal outlays, nearly three times more than defense.

      So, the reality is that the average American is a dumbfuck. I’ll consider this poll, and your gripping analysis of it, an example of confirmation bias.

  14. BB is right. And even if the question in the survey had been about allocations rather than the first thing a person thinks of, there is a huge apples and oranges problem with the two charts. The survey should have guided people to the categories in the second chart, or their choices should have been classified into those categories.

    1. The more accurate and illustrative approach would be to frame the categories of budget outlays in the language of respondants. Ergo, instead of seperately deliniating the entitlement programs across three nebulous mandatory spending categories, add a single catch all entitlement box of 55% (would serve as a better educational tool as well).

  15. Big thoughts….

  16. Where does service on the debt come in?

    1. 5% of federal outlays, listed in the pie chart as “net interest”

  17. I agree with the apples/oranges for the two charts, but you see this kind of thing in surveys all the time.

    The proper way to do it is to have people divide up the 100% roughly how they think it is.

    Ask them what % of federal spending is defense, what percent is SS, etc. And see how those correspond to reality.

    A guarantee you they wont.

    1. Either way, people are just going to answer based on what spending gets the most play by the grandstanding via the press. I’m actually surprised how accurate people were with defense.

      Also, “$700 billion TARP” is what sticks in people minds, not how many years it is spread out; TARP may have been a one-time thing but spending cuts are always expressed in the final total yet the term is usually an afterthought.

      Also, TARP was an emergency appropriation, like so much defense spending, so I actually put less credence in the Budget chart than it implies.

    2. I think that would tell us a lot. For instance, I bet most people would report Education as having much less funding than it actually does. Same with Medicare/Medicaid.

  18. I love the “Politician’s Salaries/Power” category.

    Why would anyone put payroll and the utility bills in the same bucket?

    1. I’m guessing these were free-form responses, which accounts for the 6% Ambiguous. Remember what sort of people tend to respond to polls.

    2. Not sure if you were making a joke, but I assumed that “power” meant just perks or something. Like money set aside to fill a Scrooge McDuck-style money bin full of gold coins to swim in.

  19. If we eliminated all defense spending just think of how many people we could put on welfare!

  20. I like the 3% who said wasteful spending, because that answer is never wrong.

  21. “On Does The Government Spends the Most Money?”

    Crap I don’t want.

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