FOREIGN AID AND PUBLIC CONFUSION…. Ask the public whether the government should cut spending, many Americans will say, “Of course.” Ask them what should get cut, you’ll hear something about “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Press them for specifics, the answer tends to be, “Um, foreign aid.”

It’s one of those golden oldies that has a certain populist appeal. Instead of spending money to help people overseas, the line goes, we should be spending money on struggling folks right here in the U.S. of A.

Noting the latest data from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, Paul Waldman reminds us of an important detail: most of the country vastly overstates how much we currently spend on foreign aid. From the PIPA report:

Asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid the median estimate is 25 percent. Asked how much they thought would be an “appropriate” percentage the median response is 10 percent.

In fact just 1 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Even if one only includes the discretionary part of the federal budget, foreign aid represents only 2.6 percent.

Remember, 25% was the median estimate, meaning that a whole lot of Americans think foreign aid represents an even larger percentage of the federal budget.

Waldman added:

This may be the single most important fact about public opinion regarding the budget: most Americans think that much if not most of the money the federal government spends goes to things they don’t like and people they don’t like, whether it’s wasteful pork or foreigners or lazy welfare recipients. So when you tell them we have to start slashing government, they think, “Sounds great — it certainly won’t affect me!”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.