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Government Waste, and What's Really Being Wasted

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

The American public says more than half of every federal tax dollar, 53 cents, is wasted, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey released today. But what that survey suggests to us is what's really being wasted isn't money; it's trust.

The ABC/Post survey has been asking this question for 25 years now, and the number has been as high as 56 cents and as low as 43 cents. Budget experts would say that while there certainly is waste in government, it's nowhere near that high.

Based on Public Agenda's research, when people say half of every tax dollar is wasted, they're not analyzing bloated defense purchasing or Medicare fraud (although those stories have an impact). They're expressing an overall frustration with government and based on the same ABC/Post survey, frustrations are running high. Two-thirds of those surveyed say they're "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the government. According to the Post:

The opening is clear: Public dissatisfaction with how Washington operates is at its highest level in Post-ABC polling in more than a decade -- since the months after the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996 -- and negative ratings of the two major parties hover near record highs.

There are two lessons here, one very specific, and the other more general.

The specific point is about how these levels of distrust shape the debate over the federal deficit and the national debt. There are solutions to the government's grim long-term fiscal problems; the Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report is full of them. Public Agenda's research has shown, however, that one of the biggest barriers to solving the budget problem is the public's lack of trust in leaders. People simply aren't confident that the government will use their money wisely. They're worried that if they agree to spending cuts or tax increases, the government won't put that money to good use.

More broadly, this shows the public's distaste for gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Washington. And it also shows the opportunity for a different approach: real public engagement that allows citizens' voice to be heard and their concerns to play a role in decision making. Public engagement, properly executed, can break through gridlock and allow decisions to be firmly grounded in the public's values and priorities.

Surveys like this send a clear message that politics as usual isn't working for the American public. If we're going to solve our budget problems or any of our other problems, for that matter we need to get that trust back, and that means getting the public back into the process.


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