Americans Say Federal Gov't Wastes Over Half of Every Dollar

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Believe state and local governments waste proportionately less money

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans estimate that the federal government wastes 51 cents of every dollar it spends, a new high in a Gallup trend question first asked in 1979.

Of every tax dollar that goes to the federal government in Washington, D.C., how many cents of each dollar would you say are wasted? 1979-2011 trend

The current estimate of 51 cents wasted on the dollar is similar to what Gallup measured in 2009, but marks the first time Americans believe more than half of federal spending is wasted. The low point in the trend is 38 cents wasted on the dollar, in 1986.

Americans are less likely to believe state and local governments waste money they spend than they are to believe this about the federal government, with the state estimate at 42 cents on the dollar and the local at 38 cents.

Americans have viewed the federal government as being the most wasteful of tax dollars -- and local government the least -- each time Gallup has asked these questions. That pattern is consistent with Americans' greater trust in state and local government than in the federal government.

Over time, though, Americans have become increasingly likely to see all levels of government as being wasteful of tax dollars. Americans now believe all levels of government waste at least 11 cents more on the dollar compared with 1979.

Increases in Perceptions of Cents on the Dollar That Federal, State, and Local Governments Waste, 1979-2011

Conservatives Among Most Likely to See Federal Government Waste

Estimates of federal government waste do not vary greatly by political partisanship, with only a 5 cent difference between Republicans' and Democrats' averages, but show more differentiation by ideology. Conservatives are much more likely than liberals to view the federal government as wasting money.

Senior citizens' estimate of wasted federal dollars ranks with conservatives' as one of the highest, and is significantly greater than that of Americans aged 18 to 29.

Additionally, those with more formal education estimate proportionately less federal government waste than do Americans with less education.

Estimates of Cents on the Dollar That the Federal Government Wastes, by Subgroup, September 2011

The ideological differences observed this year were not apparent in 2001, when Republican George W. Bush was president. At that time, liberals estimated a larger share of federal spending was wasted than conservatives did, 48 cents to 44. Thus, one's perceptions of how much federal spending is wasted depend partly on the match between a person's ideological preferences and the prevailing power structure in Washington.

There are generally smaller political differences in perceptions of wasteful state and local spending vs. federal spending, though conservatives' estimate of how much money local government wastes is significantly higher than liberals'.

The sharp differences between young and old in terms of federal government spending are not apparent in their estimates of how much money state and local governments waste. But the differences by education are consistent, as those with postgraduate education are much less likely than those with no college education to see state and local governments as wasting money.

Estimates of Cents on the Dollar That State and Local Governments Waste, by Subgroup, September 2011


Over the last 30 years, Americans have become increasingly likely to see all levels of government as wasting the money they spend, and now the public believes the federal government wastes more than half of the money it spends. It is not clear whether Americans believe government wastes money because it spends on programs they believe are not needed, or because it does not spend money efficiently on programs, whether needed or not. Also, it is not clear whether Americans believe money is wasted more on discretionary government spending, or more on defense, entitlement programs, and interest on the debt -- which make up the bulk of federal government spending.

In any case, the federal government has made efforts to rein in spending this year, as part of the 2011 budget and the deal to raise the debt ceiling limit. As part of that deal, a supercommittee of 12 members of Congress is now seeking additional areas for cuts, to avoid automatic cuts in defense and entitlement programs. State and local governments have also been forced to make cuts in order to balance budgets as revenues have come in lower as a result of the state of the economy. Still, with all of these efforts to curb spending, the average American does not appear to give government at all levels much credit for being careful in spending tax dollars.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 8-11, 2011, with a random sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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