Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg November 9, 2016

Most people clueless on U.S. foreign aid spending

Secretary of State John Kerry aired an old complaint about the public and foreign aid. In a speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Kerry bemoaned a persistent misconception about how much money Washington sends overseas.

"Do you know that amazing surveys show that many of our citizens think we devote a full quarter or even a third of our federal budget to foreign aid?" Kerry said on Oct. 26, 2016.

Foreign aid covers both military aid and more humanitarian forms of assistance such as fighting disease and boosting economic growth in other countries.

Kerry’s comment accurately reflects what pollsters have seen for many years. Americans greatly exaggerate the scale of those items compared to everything else Washington spends on.

To do our part to set the record straight, this chart comes from numbers in the president’s 2017 budget request. There are different ways to tally expenses across more than a dozen agencies, but by and large, foreign aid represents about 1 percent of all spending.

To support Kerry’s claim, the State Department press office pointed to several reports including a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a widely respected source of impartial data. In January 2016, Kaiser found that only 3 percent of Americans correctly estimated spending at 1 percent or less of total spending. The average answer was that foreign aid accounts for 31 percent of the U.S. budget; 15 percent of the people thought it represented over half of all spending.


That misconception is a stubborn one.

In a 1998 survey, the average answer put foreign aid at 26 percent of the budget.

And decades before that, nearly a quarter of respondents in a 1963 Gallup poll said Washington spends between 10 to 25 percent of its budget on foreign aid. Another 13 percent said it might go as high as half of all government spending.

So the surveys back-up Kerry’s statement.

Which raises the question, why do so many people get it wrong?

There are many possible reasons. The first and most obvious factor is that most Americans might not know much about foreign aid. In a 2010 poll, almost 70 percent said they had heard about the World Bank, but less that 30 percent had heard about the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government’s main overseas health and development body.

Boston College political scientist Emily Thorson points the finger at a more fundamental problem. It seems we aren’t very good with numbers.

"People don’t think in terms of percentages," Thorson said. "We do best with ‘more than’ and 'less than.’ And they also don’t have a sense of how big the federal budget is. So if they hear we’re spending billions, they don’t see how that can be a small slice of the total."

Researchers Helen Milner and Dustin Tingley, professors at Harvard and Princeton universities respectively, suggested that the way surveys ask about foreign aid might make that problem worse.

"No study that we are aware of asks individuals to assign percentages to an array of government programs, with a mandatory limit at 100 percent," they wrote in 2013.

In other words, asking only about foreign aid might lead people to ignore the big ticket budget lines for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and defense.

It’s also possible, Thorson said, that news coverage that touches on aid can be graphic and compelling -- such as scenes from refugee camps or fighter jets in flight -- which leaves the impression that these programs play a bigger role in the budget than they actually do.

Our ruling

Kerry said that surveys show that many Americans think that a quarter to a third of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign aid. The actual number is about 1 percent, and surveys back up Kerry’s statement. One 2016 poll found the average estimate was about 30 percent of all government spending. A survey done nearly two decades ago found an average estimate of 26 percent.

There’s nothing wrong about Kerry’s summary.

We rate this claim True.

Our Sources

U.S. State Department, Remarks at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Oct. 26, 2016

Kaiser Family Foundation, Americans' Views on the U.S. Role in Global Health, Jan. 20, 2016

U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal year 2017 budget, Feb. 9, 2016

PolitiFact, Marco Rubio says foreign aid is less than 1 percent of federal budget, March 11, 2016

International Interactions, Public opinion and foreign aid: A review essay, Nov. 24, 2013

American Political Science Review, Political Ignorance and Collective Policy Preferences, June 2001

Washington Post, The U.S. foreign-aid budget, visualized, Sept. 26, 2016

American Press Institute, Identifying and Correcting Policy Misperceptions, April 23, 2015

Interview, Emily Thorson, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, Boston College, Nov. 3, 2016

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Jon Greenberg

Most people clueless on U.S. foreign aid spending

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up