Poll: Americans Support Foreign Aid, but Oppose Paying for It

November 14, 2017

Majorities of the U.S. public support foreign aid policies that they view as helpful for U.S. foreign relations, but spending on domestic programs is a higher priority than foreign aid, according to data from the 2017 Chicago Council Survey. Because foreign aid represents a lower spending priority for the public, majorities think assistance to other countries should be cut, though it's possible that they overestimate how much of the budget is actually pegged for foreign aid. The full report, “Americans Support Foreign Aid, but Oppose Paying for It,” is available online

Key data from the 2017 Chicago Council Survey include: 

Benefits of U.S. Aid 

  • Majorities believe that aid for foreign countries' militaries (69 percent) and aid for foreign countries' economic development (66 percent) are very or somewhat effective means of achieving foreign policy goals. However, these are viewed as less effective than maintaining military superiority, maintaining alliances, building new alliances, and signing international agreements. 
  • The U.S. public thinks foreign aid helps rather than hurts U.S. relations with other countries (64 percent helps, 8 percent hurts), and that it helps rather than hurts national security (41 percent helps, 16 percent hurts). 
     

Spending Priorities 

  • Of six federal programs—social security, education, healthcare, defense spending, aid for foreign countries' economic development and aid for foreign countries' militaries (e.g., expertise, money, and weapons)—respondents only prefer cutting spending on foreign economic aid (50 percent) and military aid (49 percent). 
  • It's possible the U.S. public overestimates how much of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid and might be comfortable with higher spending amounts. When asked in 2014 how much of the federal budget they would like the U.S. to spend on aid to other countries, respondents averaged 8.5 percent of the federal budget, when in reality, the U.S. spent 1.4 percent of the federal budget on aid that year. 
     

U.S. respondents are more enthusiastic about specific types of foreign assistance: 

  • Majorities support disaster relief (82 percent), food and medical assistance (80 percent), and helping farmers in needy countries be more productive (76 percent). 
  • Majorities also support aid for women’s education abroad (70 percent), assisting developing economies (65 percent), and promoting democracy (56 percent). 
     

Partisan Divides 

  • Republicans are far more likely to say that economic aid should be cut back (68 percent) than Democrats (36 percent) 
  • By a smaller margin, Republicans are also more favorable toward cutting military aid to other countries (54 percent) than Democrats (42 percent). 
  • Far more Democrats (53 percent) than Republicans (33 percent) think foreign aid helps national security 
  • More Republicans (53 percent) than Democrats (30 percent) perceive of foreign aid as hurtful to the US economy. 
     

Methodology
The analysis in this report is based on data conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide online research panel between June 27 and July 19, 2017 among a weighted national probability sample of 2,020 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error is ±2.4 percentage points. 

The 2017 Chicago Council Survey was made possible by the generous support of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, the Korea Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown Family.