The Kaiser Family Foundation on Monday released a batch of public opinion polling, focused on improving health in developing countries. As an organization that loves its poll data, the results were fascinating – and, in some instances, very telling.
“Overall, our survey finds a majority of the American public believes the U.S. has a major role to play in the world, through many remain confused about the size and composition of U.S. foreign assistance,” the report states in the introduction. “We also find that providing people with accurate information has the potential to move opinion significantly.”
In short: Countering misconceptions with facts works.
For instance, only 5% of respondents answered correctly that foreign aid comprises just 1% of the federal budget. (Thirteen percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer.) Kaiser averaged out all of the answers and found that Americans believe 27% of the budget is spent on foreign aid. If you use the numbers in President Barack Obama’s FY13 budget request, 27% of the budget is equivalent to $1.026 trillion.
Kaiser then asked if the U.S. was spending too much, too little or the right amount on foreign aid. More than half (54%) said the government spends too much. Going one step further – Kaiser said it had not asked this question previously – they asked the following: “What if you heard that about 1% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid? Would you still think that the U.S. is spending [too much/too little/about the right amount] on foreign aid, or would you now say that the U.S. spends …” To that question, 36% said too little and 30% said the right amount. Only 24% – a full 30 points less – said too much.
Misconceptions weren’t limited to something as precise as budget matters, either. The poll found that respondents’ ideas of foreign aid varied greatly. Most people said foreign aid is spent on food (31%), military/weapons/defense and health care (both 21%) and a range of other items at 10% or less, including diplomacy, basic necessities, disaster relief, education, bribes and economic aid/development.
But when the frame of the question changed, the responses did too. When asked about “spending to help developing countries” instead of “spending on foreign aid,” respondents said food (33%), health care (32%), education (13%) and basic necessities (12%), with weapons, diplomacy and bribes all scoring at 10% or less.
Even so, the poll found Americans were broadly supportive of efforts to improve health in other countries; it ranked fourth behind preventing nuclear proliferation, fighting global terrorism and providing aid to disaster-stricken areas. Examining the health aspect more closely, the poll found that 2/3 of respondents said that providing access to clean water should be the top priority. Children’s health and reducing hunger and malnutrition were also high on the list of priorities.
The survey also found that respondents realize that aiding developing countries could also have benefits at home; but, by a wide margin, said the U.S. should help because it’s the right thing to do. Fifty-one percent of respondents said that, while economic and security concerns were next at 12%.
And, the poll notes, these concerns are more consistent across ideological lines than certain domestic issues, which tend to be more divisive.
Not all was good news, however. Respondents indicated they still harbor deep skepticism that any foreign aid reaches those who most need it. Averaging all the responses, Kaiser found that, on average, Americans believe 23 cents reaches those who most need it while more than double that – 47 cents – is lost through corruption.
Another disappointing development was that – in a similar vein to many polls Research!America has conducted – a majority of respondents were unable to name even one person who they thought of as a leader in efforts to improve health in developing countries. Obama and philanthropist Bill Gates (along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) were the most cited individuals at 5% each. Former President Bill Clinton received 4%, and the remaining individuals all received 1% or less. (Organizations besides Gates were mentioned at a rate of 2%.) In all, 63% said they were unable to name anyone. The poll also found an increasing public appetite for media coverage of global health concerns, though in its commentary, indicated how difficult this would be to achieve given the looming presidential elections, which will dominate the headlines through November.
“The message here is threefold,” Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman, PhD, wrote in a blog post. “First, global health aid has the potential to be relatively popular even if foreign aid is not. It may not move votes in an election as issues like jobs and the economy can, but it could be a plus instead of a minus for elected officials. Second, information and public education — to counter misperception — can matter to the level of public support. But third, whether for foreign aid generally or global health more specifically, the ultimate obstacle to greater public support is the need to make the case effectively that aid is not ripped off and makes a difference.”