The ‘Right’ Answer on the Biggest Slice of the Federal Budget

by John J. Pitney, Jr.

The Pew Research Center has a new poll on what Americans know about politics. The survey offers some useful findings, but it includes a misleading question: “On which of these activities does the US government currently spend the most money? Is it national defense, education, Medicare, or interest on the national debt?” Pew says that only 39 percent of Americans gave the “correct” response, national defense.

While defense outlays do exceed the other items in the current federal budget, people who gave other answers deserve partial credit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Medicare is ballooning and will cost more than defense by the end of the decade. Interest payments are now only one-third as great as defense spending, but because of huge deficits, they will close in on defense dollars by 2020. And while federal outlays for education are much smaller than defense spending, you get a different picture when you include states and localities. In 2008–2009, public educational institutions (elementary, secondary, and post-secondary) spent $882 billion, compared with $657 billion for defense.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

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