According to the 2010 World Public Opinion Poll, the average American thinks the US spends 27% of the federal budget on foreign aid.
The actual figure is close to 1%. Even with the fickle nature of survey data this is a huge discrepancy, unbelievable really.
Does the average person on the sidewalks of US towns and cities really think that the US government gives a quarter of its money away in foreign aid? One dollar in four, leaving three to pay for everything else at home. Surely not.
Perhaps the perception is there because the US is by far the biggest single contributor to overseas development aid.
In 2010, the OECD reported the US spent $30 billion on aid, more than half as much again as the next most generous country, the UK ($14 billion), and 23% of the global total.
As a percentage of gross national income that $30 billion is just 0.21% and well below the average country effort (0.4%). It is also half a percentage point below the UN target of 0.7%. As it happens only five countries meet the UN target (Norway, Luxemburg, Sweden, Denmark and Netherlands). The US would need to up the ante to $100 billion to catch up with the Scandinavians.
So the reality is that most countries give away less than half a cent in the dollar of national income to assist other countries develop. And the cynic would chirp that even this tiny percentage is not entirely altruistic as often the money is spent on goods manufactured at home plus some of the recipient countries will become trading partners in the fullness of time.
$30 billion was 0.8c in the dollar of the $3.6 trillion US federal budget of 2010.
Why the huge discrepancy? I must say I am at a loss. It could be because the average person has little notion of just how big the US budget is and so easily thinks that the donor part must be substantial. Or maybe people just don’t realize the huge cost of services at home.
Then again, we all tend to think that we are more generous than we actually are.
Whatever the reason, the numbers suggest there is huge difference between what people think is happening and reality.