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  1. Opinion

Column: Budget facts and fictions

The Pew Research Center recently polled Americans on how much they know about events in the news. (Want to test yourself? Take their quiz at People were generally knowledgeable about items related to current events and debates — ISIS, Ukraine and the minimum wage. But when it comes to how much the government spends on various programs? Not so much.

Pew asked respondents which program the government spent the most money on: Social Security, transportation, foreign aid or interest on the national debt. The most popular answer was foreign aid at 33 percent, followed by interest on the debt, at 26 percent. Twenty percent named Social Security, and an additional 4 percent named transportation.

So much money do we actually spend on those things?

Social Security is the largest item in the list by far, at $773 billion in spending in fiscal year 2012. That's roughly 17 times the annual spending on foreign aid, eight times the amount spent on transportation and 3.5 times the amount spent on net interest on the debt.

Responses to this question show how Americans' understanding of their world is deeply influenced by their political leanings and preconceived notions. Foreign aid is consistently rated as the least popular spending category by Americans, even though it accounts for roughly 1 percent of the federal budget. Several years of hysterics surrounding the debt and deficit have also clearly convinced people that debt spending takes up a larger share of the budget than it actually does. By contrast, Social Security is rated as one of the most popular government programs.

It's worth noting that this was one of the questions that the fewest people answered correctly in Pew's quiz. More people were able to correctly identify the chair of the Federal Reserve (Janet Yellen), the country with the most Shia Muslims (Iran), and the name of the Prime Minister of Israel (Benjamin Netanyahu), although only a minority got any of those answers right either.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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