A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Ben & Jerry’s Misleading Spending Chart


Q: What about Ben & Jerry’s chart saying 50% of federal spending is military?

A: Not true. The real figure is 19.4%.

FULL QUESTION

In my area [New Hampshire] there is a sticker that has appeared on an increasing number of cars. It looks like a pie chart. I’ve been told that the sticker is a representation of the federal budget and its purpose is to point out that a disproportionate amount of money goes to the Pentagon’s budget. The graph makes it look like almost 50% of the budget is for defense spending. I’ve also heard that the sticker comes from an organization that is run by one of the guys from Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in neighboring Vermont. Is this graph an accurate representation of the spending of our government, is it completely fabricated, or is it something in between?

FULL ANSWER

We haven’t seen the bumper sticker you mention, but on the Ben & Jerry’s company Web site we find an “American Pie” chart showing 51 percent of “the federal budget” goes to “National Defense.”

The chart also shows mere slivers of the budget going to other functions: 6 percent to “health” and 6 percent  to “income security,” for example.

This gives a false picture of federal spending priorities. In truth, the federal government spends vastly more for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid than it does for the military, even taking into account the cost of the Iraq war.

In reality, the Ben & Jerry’s chart doesn’t reflect the entire “federal budget” at all. It only shows the fraction that is classified as “discretionary” spending. That omits more than three-fifths of federal spending, including all of Social Security and Medicare. The Ben & Jerry’s site is up front in saying that its chart only refers to “the discretionary budget” and not to the whole budget, but that explanation is on another page. The chart appears on a page inviting visitors to “allocate the federal budget” as they might wish it.

The Real Picture

Actually, official figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office show a dramatically different picture of the federal government’s true spending priorities.
Of all federal government spending for the fiscal year that ended Oct. 31, what went to national defense wasn’t 51 percent – it was 19.4 percent.

And the federal government didn’t spend a mere 6 percent on income security, it spent 21 percent on Social Security alone. Even more went for health care, including 16 percent for Medicare and 7 percent for the Medicaid program for low-income persons.

This isn’t to say that too much or too little is spent in any of these areas. But the notion that the federal government lavishes more than half its spending on the military while squeezing out mere pittances for income security and health care is pure fantasy.

 

 

Sources

Monthly Budget Review.” Congressional Budget Office, 6 Nov. 2007.