Government Spending: Waste vs. Benefit

Oregonians give their best guesses as to how much money is wasted by the state government, and how much money benefits their daily lives.

image: hand stacking coins

From January 13-20, 2022, the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center conducted a statewide survey of Oregonians’ values and beliefs, including their beliefs and attitudes about government spending. We’d like to acknowledge and thank DHM Research for providing us with baseline questions benchmarked to determine changes in attitudes over time. The question numbers in this document correspond with the survey questionnaire (Q13-14).

The online survey consisted of 1,400 Oregon residents ages 18+ and took approximately 15 minutes to complete. Demographic quotas and statistical weighting were used to ensure a representative sample. Based on a 95% confidence interval, this survey’s margin of error, for the full sample, ranges from ±1.6% to ±2.6%. Due to rounding, numbers may not add up to 100%.

Respondents were contacted by using professionally maintained online panels. In gathering responses, a variety of quality control measures were employed, including questionnaire pre-testing, validation, and real-time monitoring of responses. To ensure a representative sample, demographic quotas were set, and data was weighted by area of the state, gender, age, and education.

This survey uses aggregated data to analyze the opinions of BIPOC residents in comparison to the opinions of residents who identify as white and not another race. BIPOC residents are not a monolith; the grouping represents a wide diversity of races and ethnicities. The findings included in this memo should not be construed such that all people of color are believed to share the same opinions. Disaggregated race data will be provided when sample sizes permit reliability.

Government Spending: How Much Do Oregonians Think is Wasted?

When asked how many cents out of every dollar in state spending is wasted, half of responding Oregonians say more than 44 cents are wasted, and half say fewer cents are wasted (Q13).

  • More specifically, 3% of Oregonians say there is no waste at all, and 6% of Oregonians believe every dollar spent by the state is entirely wasted.
  • Some Oregonians didn’t feel comfortable hazarding a guess or else didn’t know (26%).

Perceptions of waste in state spending have remained remarkably stable over time, despite recessions, upturns, and a global pandemic.

  • Ten years ago, in January 2012[1], the median response regarding wasted state spending was also 44 cents per dollar.
  • In a DHM Research study from 2010[2], the median response was that 39 cents per dollar were wasted.  

Differences in Opinion of Government Waste

Views of government inefficiency vary by region of the state. The most favorable views are in the tri-county area, where the median response was that 40 cents per dollar are wasted.

  • In the Willamette Valley, respondents were slightly more critical and said that 45 cents per dollar of state spending are wasted.
  • Oregonians in all other parts of the state were the most critical. They said that more than half of each dollar the state spends (51 cents) is wasted.

Women say the state wastes more cents per dollar than men, even though women are typically more supportive of tax measures to fund social programs than men.

  • The median response among women is that 48 cents per dollar of state spending are wasted, compared to a median response among men of 42 cents.

Low-income Oregonians are more likely to say that over half of the state’s spending is wasted.

  • Among Oregonians with household incomes of $50,000 per year or less, half say that the state wastes 53 cents per dollar or more, while the remaining half say less than 53 cents are wasted.
  • Meanwhile, high-earning Oregonians with household incomes of $100,000 per year or more see more value per dollar spent. The median response among this group is 31 cents per dollar wasted.

College graduates are the group most satisfied with state spending. They provide a median response of 30 cents per dollar wasted.

  • On the other hand, Oregonians with a high school diploma or less education say that 55 cents per dollar are wasted in the state budget.

In Their Own Words: Oregonians Talk About Wasted State Spending

Oregonians were given the option to share their thoughts about wasted state spending (Q13a).

  • Some Oregonians believe that waste within the state’s budget is driven primarily by inefficient staffing decisions, incompetent employees, and politicians’ pet projects.

“The debacle that was the Columbia River Crossing. Also, when ODOT was found to incompetently manage contractors and lose millions about two years ago and the state did nothing to discipline agency officials.”

Male, age 30-44, Multnomah County, Hispanic/Latino/x and White

“I’ve worked for nonprofits and seen how grant money is allocated. A $750,000 research grant and only $175,000 is spent on the salaries of the people doing the educational intervention. The rest goes to pay for tech toys, several layers of administration, data analysis at inflated consultant wages… plus pet projects for legislators that are questionable, tax breaks for billion-dollar companies.”

Female, age 45-54, Douglas County, White

  • Similarly, some Oregonians believe that inefficient or ineffective programs and services are a major source of wasted state dollars.

“I think we waste money on teachers and schools at this point. My daughter was out for 18+ months. We waste it cleaning up after Antifa. We waste it letting criminals out to do more crime. Police money is wasted because we don’t prosecute crime. Welfare money is handed out to druggie drifters who clog up our parks and streets with tents. Our political class wastes money on trying to pressure the unwilling to get vaxxed.”

Female, age 45-54, Lane County, Native American or American Indian and White

“We spent way too much money on programs without any evidence that those programs are SOLVING the problems they are meant to address. It seems that spending money is seen as a solution, but it isn’t. I want problems SOLVED and then the program must end. The programs go on forever and accomplish little, if anything.”

Male, age 45-54, Multnomah County, White

  • To a lesser extent, Oregonians see wasteful spending as a function of the wrong priorities.

“The state spends ridiculous amounts of money on freeways and not nearly enough on public transit service.”

Male, age 30-44, Multnomah County, White

“Every penny spent on Oregon State Police and National Guard, prosecuting individuals (as opposed to corporations), and paying Republicans who refuse to do their jobs is wasted. Money spent by ODOT on freeway expansion is criminally wasted.”

Non-binary or gender non-conforming, age 65-74, Washington County, Middle Eastern or North African and Slavic

  • Some respondents didn’t describe wasteful spending specifically, but instead used the opportunity to point to unfairness in the tax system when it comes to who pays.

“The fact that we give money back via the kicker and that we don’t tax corporations their fair share means we don’t have nearly the money to spend we need.”

Female, age 30-44, Washington County, Middle Eastern or North African and White

“Honestly, I feel like for the most part it’s not [wasted]. It’s private companies and the rich committing tax fraud and evasion that’s the problem.”

Non-binary or gender non-conforming, age 18-29, Multnomah County, White

  • Of course, many Oregonians had positive remarks about state spending. Overall, one-quarter (25%) of Oregonians said the state wastes 20 cents per dollar or fewer.

“They do a good job being accountable to taxpayers.”

Female, age 55-64, Clackamas County, White

“There isn’t such a thing as 100% efficiency, and it irks me [that] when we see waste in government, we think private industry is more efficient; it isn’t. Got to be careful about throwing these words around, it’s all so complicated and people jump to conclusions.”

Male, age 75+, Lane County, White

“I don’t think any is wasted.”

Female, age 18-29, Yamhill County, Native American or American Indian

Government Spending: How Much Do Oregonians Think Benefits Their Daily Lives?

When it comes to the benefits of state spending, Oregonians say 28 cents per dollar improve their daily lives (Q14).

  • This is quite similar to the result measured 10 years ago[1], when Oregonians said 30 cents per dollar benefited their daily lives.

The demographic trends for benefits are much like those for wasteful state spending, yet in reverse. However, the gaps between demographic groups are smaller when it comes to the cents per dollar that result in a benefit, versus the cents per dollar that are wasted.

  • For example, the median response for tri-county residents was 40 cents per dollar wasted, compared to 51 cents for Oregonians in the further reaches of the state.
  • When it comes to benefits, tri-county voters name the higher figure (30 cents) as compared to Oregonians in further reaches of the state (26 cents), but the difference is much smaller.

There are some exceptions to the trends. For example, even though women are more likely than men to name a higher figure for cents wasted, women are also more likely than men to name a higher figure for cents per dollar that provide a direct benefit to their lives (29 cents to 27 cents).

College graduates are the group that reports the largest figure per dollar to directly benefit their lives, at 39 cents per dollar.

In Their Own Words: Oregonians Talk About How They Benefit From State Spending

As with wasted government spending, Oregonians were given the option to share their thoughts about how state spending benefits their daily lives (Q14a).

  • Commonly, Oregonians say that societal goods – like schools, roads, and police – are the ways in which they derive daily benefits from their state tax dollars.

“Fresh water and caring for the environment. Making sure poverty doesn’t turn to violence.”

Female, age 65-74, Lincoln County, Other race or ethnicity

“I know that some of it goes to schools, roads, and funding for the low income and homeless, so I know there is some good.”

Male, age 18-29, Lane County, White

“Maintaining roads and infrastructure, law enforcement, mental health and other services for the dispossessed, education of younger generations, covid vaccination and information.”

Female, age 55-64, Benton County, Native American or American Indian and White

“The money spend on infrastructure, health care, and police agencies is welcome.”

Male, age 75+, Linn County, Slavic and White

  • Some Oregonians also pointed out that state-funded social services provide life-sustaining help in their daily lives.

“I am low-income, elderly, and I could not live without what the state spends on me. The state needs to spend more on children and environment than job creation.”

Female, age 65-74, Lane County, Native American or American Indian and White

“I’d be dead today but for the state and public spending to help poor people.”

Male, age 55-64, Washington County, Other race or ethnicity

“I’m fortunate enough to be able to use Medicaid. I’m so grateful for that.”

Male, age 30-44, Benton County, White

  • Others believe that since they are not receiving assistance from state programs, like unemployment or the Oregon Health Plan, they do not receive any benefit from their tax dollars at all.

“I’m not involved in any state programs. All my tax money seems to go to nothing.”

Female, age 30-44, Linn County, White

“The State of Oregon does nothing to help me or any of the rest of its citizens.”

Male, age 18-29, Marion County, White

“No money benefits my life. The governor and people in charge don’t care about anyone, they only care about lining their pockets.”

Female, age 65-74, Marion County, Native American or American Indian

Demographic Trends

Identifying what unites us, understanding what divides us.

Reported below are statistically significant subgroup differences between BIPOC and white Oregonians, urban and rural Oregonians, and age groups.  Many of these differences are not major and are presented to inform public education and communications initiatives. 

Oregonians who identify as BIPOC point to higher degrees of waste than white Oregonians (53 cents to 43 cents). 

  • However, BIPOC Oregonians also say that more cents per dollar benefit their daily lives as compared to white Oregonians (31 cents to 27 cents).

Differences between urban and rural areas are also modest when it comes to the benefits of state spending.

  • Whereas there is a 9-cent spread between urban and rural Oregonians when it comes to wasteful spending (43 cents to 51 cents), the spread is two-thirds of that when it comes to benefits.
  • Among rural residents, the median response is that 24 cents per dollar benefit their daily lives, compared to 30 cents for urban dwellers.
  • The diminished belief among rural Oregonians that state dollars benefit their daily lives is likely due, in part, to perceived geographical inequities:

“Most state spending is focused on the metro areas. Very little makes it here.”

Female, age 30-44, Klamath County, Native American or American Indian and White

“I strongly believe that the state is focusing way too much on the heavily populated areas and not helping or funding the parts of the smaller counties that are actually struggling with law enforcement, education, and roads alike.”

Male, age 18-29, Columbia County, White

Young adults (18-29)—a group likely to exhibit strong support for tax increases to fund social programs—report the highest perceived waste in the state budget of any demographic group (Q13). 

  • The median response among young adults is that a whopping 56 cents per dollar of state spending are wasted.
  • The median perceived waste declines by age group, with those 75+ reporting that 32 cents per dollar are wasted.
  • These differences could reflect changes in awareness about state taxes, spending, and programs as Oregonians get older.

Although the median response among young adults (18-29) about cents per dollar wasted was much higher than those 75 and older, differences are much smaller when it comes to the benefit of each dollar (Q14).

  • The median response for adults under 55 is that 25 or 26 cents per dollar benefit their daily lives. For older adults, that figure is 31 or 34 cents.

This research was completed as a community service by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, an independent and non-partisan organization. OVBC is an Oregon charitable nonprofit corporation (www.oregonvbc.org).

For More Information:


[1] Survey conducted January 19-25, 2012; DHM Research and OPB; N=500

[2] Survey conducted January, 2010; DHM Research; N=500