The Science of Personal Finance

Don't Like How Tax Dollars Are Spent? Get Used to It

Americans are unhappy with how the Federal government spends. Not much change expected.
Americans are unhappy with how the Federal government spends. Not much change expected. (Image credit: Hans Thoursie | Stock Xchng)

Amid the battle over federal spending between Democrats and Republicans, one aspect of the outcome is guaranteed: What Americans want and what they will get are two very different things. And things are liable to stay that way for years to come, analysts say.

While education and assistance to the poor are the top areas where Americans would like to see their tax dollars spent, according to a study released last month, health care and military spending topped last year's $3.6 trillion federal budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The study, conducted by the NORC Data Enclave at the University of Chicago, was part of the biennial General Social Survey, which gathers information on contemporary American society in order to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors, and attributes.

According to the study, Americans' top 10 spending priorities:

  • Education
  • Assistance to the Poor
  • Halting Crime
  • Social Security
  • The Environment
  • Dealing with Drug Addiction
  • Childcare
  • Healthcare
  • Drug Rehabilitation
  • Law Enforcement

In comparison, the top 10 actual areas of spending in the 2010 federal budget:

  • Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program
  • Defense and Security-Related International Activities
  • Social Security
  • Safety Net Programs That Provide Aid to Individuals and Families Facing Hardships
  • Benefits for Federal Retirees and Veterans
  • Interest on Debt
  • Transportation Infrastructure
  • Education
  • Scientific and Medical Research
  • Non-Security International Affairs

The Congressional Budget Office reports that more than 60 percent of the budget is spent on defense, social security and federal healthcare combined. [Infographic: Federal Spending]

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who also served as a clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said surveys like this one are difficult because many Americans don’t necessarily understand what some of the country’s true needs are and what those cost.

“We need to show them, ‘Here is what we need and this is how much it costs,’” Lilly told LiveScience. “From there, we can better ask, ‘Where are we spending too much and where are we not spending enough?’ ”

For the first time since 1990, health care did not rank in Americans' top two spending priorities. Following a year that saw huge national debates over health care, Lilly said its drop in the rankings may be partially attributed to Americans’ burnout on the issue.

He also said many might not understand all that is covered under health care funding, including childhood immunizations and money for state health agencies and community health centers. If the current budget negotiations are any indication, he added, the two columns – what Americans want versus what they’re getting – won’t be aligned soon. 

The most recently signed continuing resolution, for instance, includes massive cuts to early childhood learning and numerous public aid programs, which goes directly against the survey’s results. 

“They are going to eliminate thousands of Head Start classrooms,” Lilly said. “There are 500 cuts in (the resolution), and an inordinate amount of them are programs to help the poorest in this country.”

He anticipates surveys like this and the issues they reveal could be at the center of the 2012 election, giving those who aren’t pleased with the direction of spending a chance to voice their opinion.

I think it is likely that the next election will be focused on spending priorities,” Lilly said. “I think that puts (those Congressmen and women up for election) very much at risk.”

This was the 27th time NORC has conducted the survey since 1973, but it was the first one done since the 2008 economic meltdown.  

The order of spending priorities is determined by subtracting the percentage of respondents saying “too much” is being spent in a category from those saying that “too little” is being spent for that category. The resulting net percentage in each category determines its rank in the final spending priorities list.

This $ci-Fi article is part of an ongoing LiveScience series that explores the science of personal finance to help you navigate everyday life.

LiveScience Contributor