Actually, a reader requested a fact check of this statement, made during an interview with George Stephanopoulos, because it reinforces a very bad myth—that the United States spends a disproportionate amount of money on foreign aid. That’s not the case, as we have frequently pointed out. (We should note that his comment received enthusiastic applause from the audience.)
In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, only 5 percent of those surveyed correctly answered that the share of the $3.9 trillion budget going to foreign aid was under 1 percent. The average answer was that 26 percent of the budget went to foreign aid.
Some readers might argue that Stewart was just throwing out a phrase –“a trillion dollars”– that suggested a lot of money. Others might think we’ve lost our sense of humor. He is, after, a comedian. Yet we once fact checked rock musician Gene Simmons for inaccurate remarks he made about taxes paid by the top one percent. Stewart’s words have impact–and there is widespread misunderstanding about how the government spends its money.
So how much federal money was spent on education in Afghanistan versus schools in Baltimore?
As George Washington University professor Emily Thorson noted in a paper published with the support of the American Press Institute, there are few examples of politicians explicitly overestimating the amount of the budget being spent on foreign aid — yet most Americans consistently misbelieve foreign aid is a big part of the budget pie.
“Some of this belief [about foreign aid] might be driven by motivated reasoning (if a person opposes foreign aid they may over-estimate the amount the U.S. spend on it) while some may be driven by the availability heuristic: because foreign aid is frequently discussed and often reinforced with vivid imagery, people over-estimate the amount of money spent on it,’ Thorson wrote.
Moreover, politicians and pundits will frequently make statements that suggest that reducing foreign aid will help solve budget woes. See, for example, this statement by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2013:
“Where would we cut spending? Let’s start with ending all foreign aid to countries that are burning our flag and chanting ‘Death to America.’”
As we noted at the time, even eliminating all this money, no matter what the foreign policy consequences, would barely have an impact on furthering Paul’s goal of balancing the budget. Most federal spending is for retirement benefits, such as Social Security and Medicare, and other entitlement programs; comparatively speaking, foreign aid is peanuts.
In his remarks, Stewart falls into the same trap. He says that “a trillion dollars” was spent on schools in Afghanistan, and then suggests some of that money should have been given to schools in Baltimore, where riots and protests have broken out after a black man died of a severe spinal injury while in police custody.
First of all, even by the standards of comic exaggeration, $1 trillion is a stretch. Since 2002, Congress has appropriated $104 billion for Afghanistan relief and reconstruction, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). A lot of this funding went to bolstering the Afghan military and security forces and fostering better governance.
Some readers at this point might object that Stewart really was talking about the cost of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe so. But Stewart specifically mentioned schools in Afghanistan.
The numbers are even smaller in that instance. Using USAID’s ForeignAssistance.gov Web site, one can drill down to individual programs in Afghanistan year after year. For basic education in Afghanistan, the number is about $100 million annually. Adding higher education boosts the spending about $30 million a year. For instance, in 2012 and 2013, the total spent on education in Afghanistan was $128.6 million and $115.1 million, respectively.
Now let’s compare that to the federal spending for the city of Baltimore. According to city budget documents, the federal contribution to Baltimore schools was $184.8 million in 2012 and $169.3 million in 2013. (Most of the more than $1.2 billion budget comes from state and county funding sources.)
The contrast was even greater in 2011: $95 million for Afghanistan schools and $265 million for Baltimore schools. That’s because the 2009 stimulus bill bolstered funding for schools for several years.
Moreover, in the period the United States spent $104 billion overall on Afghanistan, the United States funneled about $400 billion to cities and states just for elementary and secondary education.
We sought a comment from a spokesman for Stewart but did not receive a reply.
The Pinocchio Test
It may be the case that Baltimore schools should get more federal funding — or that too much was spent in Afghanistan, with not much impact. But Stewart suggested that an extraordinary amount was spent on schools in Afghanistan while Baltimore did not even get a “taste.”
In fact, in a direct comparison of federal spending on Baltimore schools and spending on Afghanistan education, Baltimore easily comes out on top. So, even with allowances for comic effect, Stewart earns Four Pinocchios. Given his stature and influence, he should not reinforce stereotypes about the impact of foreign aid on the federal budget.
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