A Federal Budget Allocation Survey

At some point, in listening to the endless debates over how much the government should spend and how that spending should be allocated — in other words, in the debate over the fundamental operations of government — it occurred to me that one of the problems we have in discussing such things is that very few people actually know what we spend already. ‘Conservatives’ decry “welfare spending” and want to beef up defense; ‘liberals’ demand “butter before guns”, convinced that we spend only a pittance on social needs and a fortune on the military. But when I looked at the actual numbers (for FY2004 at the CBO web-site), I was somewhat surprised at how the money is actually allocated and I would bet that most people share my ignorance. I would further bet that, if you asked ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ to guess at the allocation of federal resources, you would get vastly different estimates, with ‘conservatives’ grossly over-estimating and ‘liberals’ grossly under-estimating the relative weight assigned to “social programs” (and with them reversed on “defense”).

If we want an intelligent debate on priorities and resources, we need to know where we already stand. To that end, I wrote an e-mail to Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times (who invites feedback on his blog) suggesting this as a topic for research and a column: how do people perceive our current budget priorities, and how accurate is that perception?

I never heard from Mr. Kristof and have seen nothing on that topic in print, so I created this survey, both as a means to quiz my friends and acquaintances on their perceptions and as an educational exercise for anyone who is curious. My survey population was extremely limited and I haven’t compiled any results; all I can report is that my peer group demonstrated my thesis — that our perceptions are both inaccurate and colored by our political pre-conceptions.

I also sent the survey to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a public-interest opinion research group, with a request that they do their own survey along the same lines. I have neither heard from them nor seen any such results.

This survey reflects very broad categories rather than minute details. For reference, I have included answers, compiled from the CBO web-site for FY2004, after the survey questions. Enjoy.

24 September 2004

Part I: Category Descriptions

This section describes the budgetary categories from the federal budget and the general policy categories that I will use in the survey:

  • Budget Categories
    • Discretionary
      Expenditure levels explicitly enumerated by Congress as part of the budgeting process
    • Defense
      Expenditures for armed forces and intelligence
    • Non-Defense
      Expenditures for non-military and non-entitlement programs, including (for example) police agencies (FBI, ATF, Treasury, etc.), non-military uniformed services (Coast Guard, Public Health Service), homeland security, research subsidies (NIH, NSF, NASA, etc), regulatory agencies (FDA, EPA, OSHA, etc.), cultural subsidies (NEA, NEH, NPR, etc.), business and trade subsidies, agriculture subsidies, national parks, diplomacy and foreign aid, federal courts, assistance to states, transportation projects, and so on. This includes some discretionary poverty assistance programs like housing subsidies, fuel-oil subsidies, food stamps, and so on that are run outside the “welfare” system. For policy purposes it would make sense to categorize these expenses with other Poverty Programs, but the budget summaries from which I worked do not itemize them that way.
    • Non-Discretionary
      Expenditure levels mandated by eligibility policies set by Congress or by promissory notes, independent of the budgeting process
    • Social Security
      Retirement and disability income support
    • Medicare
      Retirement and disability health care support
    • Welfare
      AFDC, WIC, and so on — traditional welfare programs
    • Medicaid/SCHIP
      Health care for the poor
    • Debt Service
      Interest paid on the national debt
  • Policy Categories
    • Defense
      Discretionary/Defense; military and intelligence expenses
    • Poverty Programs
      Non-Discretionary/Welfare and Medicaid/SCHIP; anti-poverty program expenses
    • Health Care
      Non-Discretionary/Medicare and Medicaid/SCHIP; direct health care reimbursement expenses
    • Retirement Support
      Non-Discretionary/Social Security and Medicare; direct retirement benefit reimbursement expenses
    • Social Insurance
      Non-Discretionary/Social Security, Medicare, Welfare, and Medicaid/SCHIP; expenses for the “social safety net” that encompasses the Poverty Programs, Health Care, and Retirement Support policy categories. In theory this category should also include some items from Discretionary/Non-Defense that support social welfare programs, but those items were not itemized separately in the summaries from which I worked
    • Debt Service
      Non-Discretionary/Debt Service; financing expenses for the national debt
    • Non-Defense
      Discretionary/Non-Defense; all expenses that are not Defense, Social Insurance, or Debt Service

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