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Americans: Uncle Sam Wastes 50 Cents on the Dollar

Figures are 42 cents for state governments; 37 cents for local

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are markedly cynical about the amount of waste in federal spending, more so than at several other times in recent history. On average, Americans believe 50 cents of every tax dollar that goes to the government in Washington, D.C., today are wasted. That's an increase from 46 cents per dollar in 2001.

Trend: Perceived Federal Government Waste

"Perceptions of waste in state government are the same among residents of the 28 states that currently have Democratic governors as they are in the 22 states with Republican governors (averaging 42 cents per dollar for each)."

Perceptions of federal waste were significantly lower 30 years ago than they are today. In October 1979 -- Gallup's earliest reading -- the estimate was 40 cents per dollar. The figure rose sharply by September 1981, perhaps influenced by President Ronald Reagan's sharp attacks on government spending that year as part of his supply-side approach to the federal budget. Americans' estimate for federal waste dipped to 38 cents (the lowest in Gallup records) during Reagan's second term, but rebounded into the mid-40s 15 years later. Now at 50 cents, the 2009 figure is the highest measured to date.

Looking at today's results more specifically, about a third of Americans (35%) believe more than half of every tax dollar is wasted, up from 26% in 2001. Another third mention a number between 26 and 50 cents while 21% say no more than 25 cents are wasted.

Recent Trend: Perceived Federal Government Waste

Americans are only a bit less critical of state government spending. The average amount they now say their own state wastes is 42 cents, again topping the previous high by a few cents. Slightly more Americans today, compared with eight years ago, believe more than 50 cents of each state tax dollar is wasted (23% today versus 16% in 2001).

Trend: Perceived State Government Waste

Local government fares best among the three levels of government, and has not seen much change in its reading since the last measurement. The average amount per dollar Americans believe their own local government wastes is 37 cents, similar to the 36 cents recorded in the Sept. 7-10, 2001, Gallup survey.

Trend: Perceived Local Government Waste

Republicans and independents estimate higher levels of waste at the federal level than do Democrats. Additionally, Republicans are twice as likely today as they were in September 2001 (45% vs. 22%, respectively) to believe that the federal government wastes more than 50 cents per tax dollar. The percentage of independents estimating at least 51 cents of waste has risen by a smaller amount (from 33% to 40%), while the percentage of Democrats with this view has not changed.

With respect to waste at the state level, independents perceive greater waste in their own states than do either Republicans or Democrats. The three groups are about equal in their perceptions of waste at the local level.

Mean Number of Cents Wasted per Level of Government, by Party

Perceptions of waste in state government are the same among residents of the 28 states that currently have Democratic governors as they are in the 22 states with Republican governors (averaging 42 cents per dollar for each). Perhaps surprisingly, even within Republican-led states, Republicans estimate a higher amount of waste than do Democrats.

Perceived Waste in Democratic- vs. Republican-Led States, by Party

Bottom Line

With President Obama promising to pay for healthcare reform through efficiencies in federal spending, Gallup finds Americans, on average, believing 50 cents of every tax dollar sent to Washington, D.C., are wasted. Perceptions of waste in state and local governments are a bit lower.

Across all time periods since Gallup first asked about government waste, Americans have believed the federal government is the most wasteful and local government the least, with state government falling somewhere in between. However, given the increases in perceived waste since the earliest readings, no level of government today can boast about its figures.

Perceived Government Waste Trend: Three Levels of Government

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,026 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 2, 2009. 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 land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

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.

Detailed Trend: Perceived Waste in Federal Government

Detailed Trend: Perceived Waste in State Government

Detailed Trend: Perceived Waste in Local Government


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