A key provision in House Republican budget proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is the reining in of government spending in part by implementing large changes to Medicare. Most Americans are not aware that Medicare — while not as large as defense or Social Security — consumes a sizable chunk of the federal government’s budget. Given four choices and asked which activity the government currently spends the most money on, just 29% are able to correctly answer Medicare, which is considerably larger than the three other options (education, scientific research and interest on the nation debt) in cost to the federal government. More than a third (36%) incorrectly say interest on the debt costs the most and 22% admit they do not know the answer. That question — part of an 11-question political IQ quiz — was the least well known of all questions asked in the survey. By comparison, 57% know the unemployment rate. There was no partisan gap in knowledge about Medicare and government spending. While American may not know specifics about the program, it is quite popular. A March Pew Research poll found that 65% oppose making changes to Social Security and Medicare to reduce the budget deficit. (The Ryan budget proposal does not propose changes to Social Security.) Opposition to changes in these entitlement programs includes a 59%-majority of Republicans. In fact, far from reducing spending, a plurality of the public would like to see more tax dollars spent on Medicare. A February Pew Research poll found that 40% of Americans would increase spending on Medicare if they were making up the budget for the federal government for this year. Another 43% would keep spending the same, while just 12% of Americans would choose to decrease spending on Medicare. Read More

Russell Heimlich  is a former web developer at Pew Research Center.