When I speak about world poverty at Princeton University, where I teach, or at campuses around the country, students often suggest that America is a generous country: It's already doing its part.
When my students cite American generosity, I show them figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the amounts given by all the group's donor members. The students are astonished to find that the United States has, for many years, been at or near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of the proportion of national income given as foreign aid. After several years of vying with Portugal and Greece, we fell to the absolute bottom in 2007. Norway led the way, giving 95 cents per $100, followed by Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, and Austria. Other rich countries give less than 50 cents, with the average that year 45 cents; the United States gave only 16 cents of every $100 earned.
The ignorance of Americans about their nation's role in aiding the world's poorest people is widespread, and it has been shown in many surveys. Asked by the Gallup International Association in 2005 whether the United States gives more, less, or about the same amount of aid as other wealthy countries do in terms of percentage of national income, only 9 percent of Americans gave the correct answer; 42 percent of the respondents said the nation gave more than four times as much as was true at the time. At the extreme, 8 percent of Americans thought that the United States gave more than a quarter of its national income as aid, a portion that is more than 100 times as great as the actual amount.
Americans also suffer from gross misconceptions about how significant the country's aid is as a percentage of all federal spending. In four surveys that asked Americans what portion of government spending goes to foreign aid, the median answers ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent. The correct answer is less than 1 percent.
A majority of people in those surveys further said that America gives too much aid — but when asked how much America should give, the median answers ranged from 5 percent to 10 percent of government spending. In other words, people wanted foreign aid cut — to an amount that is five to 10 times as much as their country actually gives.
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