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Americans Say Federal Gov't Wastes 51 Cents on the Dollar

Americans Say Federal Gov't Wastes 51 Cents on the Dollar

by Rebecca Riffkin

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans estimate that the federal government wastes 51 cents of each tax dollar. This matches their prior estimate in 2011, which was the highest Gallup had measured since 1979. Americans are less harsh about their state and local governments, viewing them as wasting 42 cents and 37 cents, respectively.

Americans Say the Federal Government Wastes More of Each Tax Dollar Than They Say State and Local Governments Waste

When Gallup first asked the question in 1979, Americans estimated that the federal government wasted 40 cents of every dollar, their state government wasted 31 cents, and their local government wasted 25 cents. Those are the lowest figures for state and local levels of government in any year since, while the lowest waste estimate for federal spending was a slightly lower 38 cents in a 1986 survey.

Gallup didn't ask these questions during the next decade, but when it next asked them in 2001, the "wasted cents" estimates were roughly in line with those in the 1980s. Since 2001, however, the proportion of the tax dollar Americans say the federal and state governments waste has increased, while the estimate for local governments has remained roughly the same.

Americans historically have always seen local governments as wasting the lowest proportion of each dollar, while seeing the federal government as wasting the most. This is consistent with Gallup research showing that Americans' trust in state and local governments is significantly higher than their trust in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

Republicans More Likely Than Democrats to See More Waste in Federal Government

Republicans' average government waste estimates are higher than Democrats' and independents' for all three levels of government, although the gap is particularly wide with respect to federal tax dollars. These gaps are much narrower at the local and state levels.

Views of Tax Dollars Wasted, by Americans' Party Identification, September 2014

Bottom Line

Most Americans are currently not satisfied with the way things are going in the country, and approval of government bodies, such as Congress, continues to be close to all-time lows. Americans' views that half of federal tax dollars are wasted underscore this lack of confidence in and satisfaction with the federal government. State and local governments fare better, but their perceived waste is still more than one-third of each dollar. Even Democrats, who have higher trust in government than independents and Republicans, see all levels of government as wasting at least 35 cents per dollar.

Congress is in the process of passing a new budget bill, which it failed to do this time last year, causing the partial government shutdown, which lasted several weeks. Although Americans see a lot of waste in government, it is unclear if they feel this is from wasteful programs, or if they feel the government spends too much on things that don't deserve funding to begin with.

Past polling, however, has found that a majority of Americans oppose funding cuts to almost all programs Gallup has asked about. So while Americans say the federal government wastes large amounts of tax dollars, they are also unwilling to cut funding to many programs. Americans do seem to feel the government generally needs to rein in its spending and do a better job of spending tax dollars wisely.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 4-7, 2014, on the Gallup Daily tracking survey, 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, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

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 of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone 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 to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.

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 survey methodology, complete question responses, and trends.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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