September 24th, 2011
03:00 AM ET

Americans say federal government wastes over half of every dollar

By Jeffrey M. Jones,

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 withAmericans' greater trust in state and local government than in the federal government.

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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.

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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'.

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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.

Read more at Gallup.

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Topics: Poll • United States

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Kailim

    Mao Zedong said 'waste and corruption are both serious crimes'.

    September 24, 2011 at 6:09 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed, one's less careful spending other people's money!

      September 24, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  2. Trip Richert

    Every single presidential candidate I have heard speak at some point claims that he or she can cut "wasteful spending." I'm sure that most if not all that obtain the office maintain that goal. The problem is that in many cases cutting "wasteful spending" is more costly than the waste in the first place. After all, to cut waste and corruption requires red tape and more beurocracy. At some point, a balance has to be struck. That isn't to say we can't improve our system. We always need to be trying to clean up the system's waste and red tape. However, no candidate can balance the budget by just cutting out waste. Any candidate that claims we can balance the budget by cutting out waste alone and that the public will not lose any services is lying.

    September 24, 2011 at 11:08 am | Reply
  3. Roko-Jiope T. BALAWANILOTU

    When confronted with words like "estimate" and "measured" we immediately worry that such matters of import are being presented by information gateways for consumers to further wallow in a quagmire of guesstimate diatribe. Is there any consideration at all about civic responsibility being of a higher calling than unscrupulous desire to be free in speech and thought?

    September 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Reply

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