Trump is giving a major policy speech — here’s what Americans think about 13 major areas of federal spending

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Donald Trump
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is set to give a speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening and government spending is likely to be a big part of the discussion. We took a look at the opinions Americans hold about various major government spending areas to get a sense of what the public could be looking for from coming budget negotiations.

The “General Social Survey,” a project of the independent research organizationNORC at the University of Chicago, has been tracking several aspects of American life since 1972. Business Insider looked at the results of several survey questions about Americans’ views on federal-spending priorities between the 1970s and 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.

Here is what Americans think about 13 major spending areas.


Highway and road spending has been popular among Americans for decades.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans are broadly favorable toward other forms of transportation infrastructure. Just 9% of respondents in 2014 thought we were spending too much on mass transit.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans like spending on Social Security. In 2014, a majority of respondents said the federal government is spending too little on the retirement program.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans overwhelmingly think the education system is underfunded, and the proportion of people who think we’re spending too little has been increasing since the ’70s.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans think we aren’t spending enough on environmental protection. In 2014, 57% of respondents said we spent too little on it.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans generally want to spend more on healthcare. Interestingly, there was an uptick in the share of respondents who said that we spend too much on health, starting in 2010 and coinciding with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans also think we should spend more on dealing with drug addiction. In 2014, 57% of respondents thought we were spending too little on the problem.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

While a large majority of Americans still think we spend too little on fighting crime, the share of people holding that view has dropped with falling crime rates since the ’90s.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans think the government should spend more on the problems of big cities, though like some other entries, this sentiment peaked in the mid-’90s as crime began to fall.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Other programs are less popular. A plurality of Americans have, for decades, thought the government spends too much on welfare, though there was a big drop-off in that sentiment after the 1996 welfare-reform bill.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans have mixed feelings about spending on space exploration. When this question was first asked on this survey in the mid-’70s, NASA was wrapping up the immensely expensive Apollo moon-exploration program, coinciding with a majority belief that the government was spending too much, which has since subsided.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Americans perennially believe that the federal government spends too much on foreign aid, and that shows up in the survey. Interestingly, foreign-aid spending is relatively tiny, coming in at around 1% of the federal budget.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey

Source on foreign-aid-budget share: PolitiFact


Views on military spending ebb and flow with political developments. There was a huge uptick in the share of Americans saying we spent too little on defense in 1980, coinciding with the robustly pro-military Reagan campaign. By 2006 and 2008, as the Iraq War’s popularity was collapsing, a plurality of Americans said we spent too much on the military.

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Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from General Social Survey