Commentary Magazine


Poll: Americans Blame the Deficit on Wars, Not Domestic Programs

This latest Pew Research Center poll does not hold good news for proponents of strong national defense. According to the findings, 60 percent of Americans believe that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed “a great deal” to the size of the national debt. In comparison, just 24 percent said increased spending on domestic programs contributed a great deal to the deficit.

Not only does this indicate that the public may be over-eager to slash defense spending, but it also shows that many Americans have been misled about the true source of our nation’s debt.

Since 1965, our national defense spending as a percentage of GDP has actually declined – currently it hovers around 5 percent. But since 1965, entitlement spending has more than tripled, going from 2.5 percent of GDP to its current 10 percent. To say that defense contributes more to our spending problems than entitlement programs is simply inaccurate.

Rep. Paul Ryan made a similar point during his recent foreign-policy address to the Alexander Hamilton Society:

Our fiscal crisis is above all a spending crisis that is being driven by the growth of our major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In 1970, these programs consumed about 20 percent of the budget. Today that number has grown to over 40 percent.

Over the same period, defense spending has shrunk as a share of the federal budget from about 39 percent to just under 16 percent – even as we conduct an ambitious global war on terrorism. The fact is, defense consumes a smaller share of the national economy today than it did throughout the Cold War.

There are many myths about spending that have gained traction over the years. For example, according to the same Pew poll, 72 percent of respondents said that the U.S. should “reduce U.S. assistance to foreign countries” in order to help rein in the deficit. But even though this suggestion tops the list of deficit-reduction ideas, cutting foreign aid would have a negligible effect on the nation’s debt.

Conservatives, especially ones who support a strong national defense, need to do a better job ensuring that the public is informed on the true nature of the deficit. If not, this misinformation will just continue to spread.