Most Americans don’t understand that foreign aid is just about 1% of budget

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 31, 2023
The Atlantic's Tom Nichols’ takeaway for media outlets:'We need to stop asking people in diners about foreign aid'
Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash

Tom Nichols, the retired US Naval War College professor who writes for The Atlantic with insight and trenchant wit recently explained the deep problems facing America by addressing the gaping hole in peoples’ (mis)understanding of foreign aid.

Noting a recent Washington Post report from Shreveport, Louisiana, the district represented by the new House Speaker Mike Johnson, Mr Nichols enlarged on the trouble with naïve reportage.

With a growing number of American politicians, including Mr Johnson, opposed to funding Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression, The Washington Post decided to ask one of his constituents in Shreveport about foreign aid. The woman named Celeste Gauthier, 45, was described as having attended Middlebury College for a time, perhaps  “a clumsy way of trying to tell us she’s not merely some rough local, and that she returned from Vermont to help run her family’s three restaurants.”

Ms Gauthier told the paper she was deeply concerned about foreign aid. “Politics here is personal,” she said. “People really do look at the funding we’re sending to Israel and Ukraine and say, ‘I can’t afford to go to Kroger (the local diner)’.”

And then the crunch moment when she explained local hopes that Mr Johnson’s elevation to Speaker would change the logic and flow of aid overseas. Sitting in the diner she said: “A lot of these customers know Mike Johnson and think we often get overlooked and maybe we won’t anymore”.

That’s the bit The Atlantic jumped on.

Mr Nichols wrote: “I’m not sure what it means to be ‘overlooked’ in a cherry-red district in a state where, as the Post notes, Republicans will control all three branches of state government once the conservative governor-elect is sworn in, but the comment about foreign aid is a classic expression of how little people understand about the subject.”

He went on to express astonishment at the possibly naïve belief of Ms Gauthier and others “that the new speaker—who has been opposed to sending aid to Ukraine—would redirect the money back to ‘overlooked’ Louisianans, maybe as increased aid to the poor.”

The reality, said Mr Nichols, is that Mr Johnson would do no such thing, having already proposed huge cuts in social spending.  But the real point of Mr Nichols’ fulminations is Americans’ lack of awareness about US aid to the world, as well as their leaders’ willingness to let them flounder in that benighted swamp of ignorance.

Foreign aid is only about 1 per cent of the US budget, or roughly $60 billion. And even though special measures – humanitarian and military – for Ukraine have added up to roughly $75 billion over 18 months, Mr Nichols notes that it’s a quite different case from Israel. That’s “a far smaller country”, he writes, but in the past 70 years, it’s “cumulatively received more foreign aid from the United States than from any other country”. Usually, it gets about $3 billion but Joe Biden wants to add on another $14 billion.

Noting that Americans spent just over $181 billion on snacks and $115 billion on beer last year (+ about $7 billion annually on potato chips), Mr Nichols sensibly suggested that people pay taxes to enable the federal government to “do things that no other level of government can achieve, and national security is one of them”. Russia’s threat to Ukraine and Nato in Europe means Ukraine must be supported, something the US can do with “a total investment that (as of this moment) is less than one-tenth of the amount we spend on defense in a single year. This is the spending Mike Johnson is so worried about?”

And yet, most Americans don’t understand the low levels of US foreign aid. Which brings me to Mr Nichols’ takeaway for those of us interested in journalism: “We need to stop asking people in diners about foreign aid.”

Instead, ask national leaders about it and don’t let them suggest to the gullible that savings on foreign aid will go back to their constituencies.

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