John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University, dove deep into the results of a 2008 survey conducted as part of the American National Election Studies. He came back with something fascinating. (The ANES is an ambitious effort to probe the evolving thoughts of the American electorate over time. After the ‘08 elections, for example, ANES researchers conducted more than 2,000 face-to-face interviews.)
In one question, respondents were asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 7, from extreme liberal to extreme conservative. In another question, they were asked whether they would support a reduction or elimination of federal spending in any of 12 different categories, from public education to highways.
Sides first identified those respondents who said they were conservative or very conservative. He then compiled that group’s answers to the question about possible cuts in federal spending. The results were posted at Salon, along with the following chart:
About 50 percent of self-identified conservatives said they would like to cut or eliminate foreign aid; roughly 35 percent said they would like to cut or eliminate welfare. About 20 percent said they’d cut or eliminate funding for child care.
But the most part, when offered specific spending areas to cut or eliminate, a majority of self-identified conservatives balked. (I tried to assemble a similar analysis of how self-identified liberals answered the question, but ANES posts only raw, undifferentiated data, and frankly I lack the capacity to tease out the answer to that question. Perhaps Sites or other scholars can conduct that research.)
I did, however, dig out a Kaiser Foundation study that helps put the Sides research into context. While it dates back to 1995, I doubt the results would have changed much over time. In the Kaiser survey, Americans were given a list of six programs and asked to identify the two areas in which the federal government spent the most money. (The possible choices were defense, interest on the debt, foreign aid, welfare, Social Security and health.)
The two choices mentioned most often as big-budget items were foreign aid (41 percent) and welfare (40 percent) (See Table 16). Those also happen to be the two areas in which conservatives are most eager to cut.
So you’ve got two areas in which the public thinks we spend huge amounts of money, and you’ve got conservatives eager to make substantial cuts in both areas. Theoretically, we seem to have a formula for cutting the deficit significantly. But there’s a problem.
In 2009, the federal government spent all of $22.1 billion on international development and humanitarian assistance, i.e, non-military foreign aid. (See Table 3.2, Item 151) That’s a mere 0.06 percent of the $3.5 trillion budget.
If you define welfare as a combination of federal housing assistance such as Section 8, plus food stamps and TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), the federal government spent $173 billion last year, or 4.9 percent of the budget, on welfare. (See Table 3.2, Items 604, 605. For TANF number, see here.)
In other words, if you take the two areas most often cited for cuts by conservatives and you eliminate them entirely, you will have cut federal spending by 5.5 percent.
Then what do we do?