Global Policy Forum

Public Priorities in the Allocation


Comment by Jeffrey Laurenti, Executive Director of Policy Studies, UNA-USA:

Some fascinating data was just released by the ever-enterprising psephologists (i.e., polling mavens) at the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). Their exercise consists of taking a random sample of Americans, giving them basic information on US government spending, and asking them to indicate which categories of spending should be increased, which should be reduced, and which stay the same.

What is most striking is how, among expenditure items dealing with the rest of the world, by far the highest support for increased spending is for the United Nations. (36% called for more funding for it--not just more funding, but throwing money at it: among all respondents, the overall change advocated for the U.N. was to more than triple current funding levels!) This dwarfs funding for State, the Pentagon, USAID, and military aid, all of which which respondents favored reducing. Most amazing is that the increase the public sampled here wants to give to the U.N. is, in percentage terms, the highest percentage increase of any category, foreign or domestic.

Reassuringly for the survey's credibility, the areas where PIPA's surveyed citizens wanted to pour the most new funding (in terms of dollar amounts rather than percentage increases) are the red-button issues of this year's campaign: medical, education, jobs, and environment. These numbers certainly don't indicate where Washington's policymakers priorities may lie, but they do suggest there is considerable public willingness to rethink the relative roles of the different pieces of America's international and national-security strategies--and that "the U.N. idea" scores well with the public in that rethinking.


Budget Item
1999 Spending *
Preferred Spending
% of Budget
Change Direction
% of Budget
$ Change
% Change
Space Program and Science Research
Cut 43.8%
Same 24.4%
Increase 31.8%
Environment and Natural Resources
Cut 36.2%
Same 13.7%
Increase 50.1%
Job Training and Employment Related Services
Cut 19.5%
Same 13.2%
Increase 67.3%
Medical Research
Cut 6.9%
Same 13.2%
Increase 79.9%
Federal Administration of Justice
Cut 57.0%
Same 20.8%
Increase 22.2%
UN and UN Peacekeeping
Cut 21.8%
Same 42.4%
Increase 35.8%
State Dpt., for management of US relations with other countries
Cut 43.7%
Same 39.7%
Increase 35.8%
Transportation incl. highways and mass transit
Cut 33.5%
Same 16.2%
Increase 50.3%
Military aid to foreign countries
Cut 65.1%
Same 17.4%
Increase 17.4%
Education, primarily grants to states and college students
Cut 19.5%
Same 11.1%
Increase 69.4%
Humanitarian and economic aid to foreign countries
Cut 49.2%
Same 24.2%
Increase 26.7%
Defense Budget, or military spending
Cut 68.4%
Same 8.4%
Increase 23.1%
Reduction of National Debt
Cut 4.8%
Same 37.5%
Increase 57.7%

(*) All $ values represent part of a total allocation of $1,000.


New Poll: Public Would Allocate a Federal Budget
Much Different from Washington's

PIPA Press Release
(September 27, 2000)

When given the chance in a new poll to allocate a federal budget, Americans cut defense spending deeply while increasing spending on education, job training and medical research. In contrast to widely held assumptions about the public's priorities, only a small portion of the surplus was devoted to tax cuts or new spending, while the lion's share went to Social Security, Medicare and paying down the national debt.

This groundbreaking study presented a representative sample of 712 Americans with the Fiscal Year 1999 federal discretionary budget and gave them the opportunity to reallocate it. The most dramatic change was that, on average, respondents cut defense 24%, which would represent a cut of more than $70 billion. The areas that saw the greatest increases in dollar terms were educational programs -- federal support to education (up 45%) and job training (up 128%) -- and medical research (up 147%). In percentage terms, the budget line that received the greatest increase was the United Nations and UN Peacekeeping, which was increased 218%.

Steven Kull, director of the Center on Policy Attitudes (COPA), commented, "What is striking is that when other polls have simply asked about the current level defense spending, the public is relatively sanguine. But when respondents see how much of the budget goes to defense as compared to other spending, they call for deep cuts. In the focus groups we conducted, people expressed great surprise at the amount devoted to defense."

When poll respondents were asked how they wanted to distribute the budget surplus, on average they assigned 71% of the surplus to shoring up Social Security and Medicare and paying down the national debt. Just 18% went to tax relief and just 11% went to new spending on discretionary programs. "What is interesting here," according to Kull, "is that the public is so often assumed to be preoccupied with the short-term gratifications of tax cuts and spending increases, but when given the chance, they opt for spending most of the surplus on the long-term considerations of Social Security, Medicare and the national debt."

When posed options for distributing the Social Security surplus, approximately half opted to put it into retirement accounts, even after being told that this would move up the date that the government would need to begin repaying the Social Security Trust Fund.

The study, a joint effort of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the California-based research company Knowledge Networks, used an innovative Internet-based methodology. Because such a process requires considering a significant amount of information simultaneously the standard telephone interview method was less than ideal. Using the Internet, though, it becomes possible to give respondents a substantial amount of information that they can peruse and make decisions about at their own pace.

Many Internet polls are questionable because they do not have truly representative samples, as they are limited to the universe of people who are already online. However Knowledge Networks has created a truly representative sample: it has recruited a panel of more than 60,000 people across the United States using a random digit dialing process and supplied all panelists with WebTV, which they use to retrieve and respond to surveys. It is widely recognized that this process ensures each household in the US has an equal chance of being asked to participate, and also means that the pool of panelists contains households that do not already have Internet access.

Find more on the poll's methodology and further analysis at



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