Americans Support Foreign Aid, but Oppose Paying for It

November 14, 2017

By: Lily Wojtowicz, Research Associate; Dina Hanania, Intern, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

In 2015 the United States spent $39 billion in foreign aid to other countries, including military assistance, representing 1.3 percent of the federal budget. President Trump’s budget proposal this spring cut foreign aid to other nations by over one-third. Data from the 2017 Chicago Council Survey shows that Americans view spending on domestic programs as a higher priority than foreign aid. However, majorities of the American public support specific foreign aid policies and see aid as helpful for US foreign relations. Because it’s a lower priority, majorities think aid to other countries should be cut, but they also overestimate how much of the budget is actually pegged for foreign aid.

Domestic Spending is the Priority, but Support for Foreign Aid is Strong

The American public’s view of the benefits of foreign aid is complicated; Americans support aid programs but would like to cut aid spending and have mixed feelings about its impact.

Despite majority support for a spectrum of foreign aid programs, Americans have consistently prioritized domestic spending over foreign assistance in the US federal budget. A majority of Americans would like to see expanded federal spending on education, healthcare, and social security and a plurality feel the same about defense spending. Of six federal programs—social security, education, healthcare, defense spending, military aid, and economic aid—respondents prefer cutting spending on military aid and economic aid. 

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However, Americans express majority support when assistance is more specific. Majorities favor providing aid for disaster relief (82%), food and medical assistance (80%), and helping farmers in needy countries be more productive (76%). Majorities also support aid for broader goals such as women’s education abroad (70%), assisting developing economies (65%), and promoting democracy (56%).

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What’s more, while most Americans think foreign aid helps rather than hurts US relations with other countries (64% helps, 8% hurts) and more think that it helps national security (41%) rather than hurts it (16%), more Americans say foreign aid hurts the economy (41%) rather than helps it (29%). 

The Dichotomy of Supporting Programs but Not Funding Them

It’s possible Americans overestimate how much of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. The 2014 Chicago Council Survey tested this by asking respondents how much they think the United States spends on military and economic aid to other countries. They averaged 8.5 percent of the federal budget when, in reality, foreign assistance programs only took up 1.4 percent of the federal budget that year. However, that same year, majorities of Americans preferred reducing spending on military (59%) and economic aid (60%).

While supportive of foreign assistance, items that relate to foreign aid are considered lesser foreign policy priorities; combating world hunger, promoting and defending human rights, and providing famine relief were deemed least important from a list of 11 potential items. Top priorities were protecting American jobs and responding to direct threats like nuclear proliferation.[1] Majorities of Americans also think that military aid (69%) and economic aid (66%) are effective means of achieving foreign policy goals. However, Americans view these as less effective than maintaining military superiority, maintaining alliances, building new alliances, and signing international agreements.

Partisan Divides Across the Board

While majorities across political affiliation believe that foreign aid helps US relations with other countries, there are partisan divisions on other impacts.

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Far more Democrats (53%) than Republicans (33%) think foreign aid helps national security. And far more Republicans (53%) than Democrats (30%) believe foreign aid hurts the US economy. Republicans are far more likely to say that economic aid should be cut back (68%) than Democrats (36%). Even greater majorities of core Trump supporters favor cutting back economic aid to other countries (77%). By a smaller margin, Republicans are also more favorable toward cutting military aid to other countries (54%) than Democrats (42%).

Finally, while bipartisan majorities continue to support these specific aid policies, Republicans have become less favorable towards all forms of foreign assistance, with the exception of aid to help farmers be more productive in needy countries. On the other hand, Democrat support for all types of foreign aid has been consistent. Independent support remains consistent for some types of aid—food, medical, and agricultural aid—but has dwindled for others—developing economies, promoting democracy, and women’s education.

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The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2017 Chicago Council Survey of the American public on foreign policy. The 2017 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, probability-based, nationwide online research panel between June 27 and July 19, 2017 among a representative weighted national sample of 2,020 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. This panel is the largest national sampling frame from which fully representative samples can be generated to produce statistically valid inferences for study populations. The margin of error for the full sample is ±2.4 percentage points.

Partisan identification is based on respondents’ answer to a standard partisan self-identification question: “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?”

Core Trump supporters are identified as those respondents who answered “very favorable” to the question: “Do you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable view of the following world leaders: US President Donald Trump?” This group, 21 percent of the overall sample, self-identify primarily as Republicans (62%), but also includes a third that identify as Independents (31%), and a handful of Democrats (5%).

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

About the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization that provides insight—and influences the public discourse—on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices, conduct independent research, and engage the public to explore ideas that will shape our global future. The Council is committed to bringing clarity and offering solutions to issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world. Learn more at and follow @ChicagoCouncil.

[1] Americans also see defending allies’ security as less important than defending human rights and combatting world hunger.

Americans Support Foreign Aid, but Oppose Paying for It

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