Americans overestimate foreign aid? Not so fast.

A woman, who has been displaced by floods, uses a USAID box to move her belongings while taking refuge on an embankment at Chandan Mori village in Dadu, some 320 km (199 miles) north of Karachi October 10, 2010. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro (PAKISTAN - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) - RTXT9RN

You’ve probably heard the statistic: “On average, Americans think 28 percent of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, when it is about one percent.”

Reporters repeat versions of this “foreign aid” factoid all the time, sometimes with a certain anti-populist glee. As Ezra Klein notes, the foreign aid budget estimate is the “example budget wonks turn to when they want to underscore the public’s ignorance.” “Most people clueless on U.S. foreign aid spending,” says Politifact. A 2012 opinion piece in USA Today cited the foreign aid statistic to make the case that “not everyone should” vote. In other words, the public’s foreign aid budget estimate underwrites an awful lot of doubt about the capacity of Americans to judge public policy.

The problem is, that statistic is quite misleading. In a new article published in American Politics Research, I look at what Americans actually mean when they talk about foreign aid. The answer may surprise you.

Americans commonly think of foreign aid as including military spending—and no surprise, given America’s enormous military budget, this inflates their estimates of the foreign aid budget. In fact, when someone thinks of foreign aid as military spending, his or her estimate of the foreign aid budget is more than 50 percent higher, on average. For people with lower levels of education, thinking of foreign aid as military spending doubled their estimate of the foreign aid budget.

Where does this misunderstanding come from? Well, some foreign aid spending is, in fact, “security aid.” But the real problem, I would suspect, is the way in which political leaders talk about U.S. military endeavors. Matt Yglesias, who recently covered my research at Vox, makes the point well:

The Department of Defense is obviously doing a lot of stuff that is not related to defending the United States from the threat of a Canadian invasion or what have you. And most of that stuff is rhetorically justified as a form of helping foreigners. Our troops are participating in the defense of South Korea, Japan, and Western Europe. We hear about efforts to bring democracy to Iraq and liberate women in Afghanistan. In recent years, the US Navy ran a whole ad campaign themed around the notion that it is a “global force for good.”

When leaders use the language of humanitarianism to describe military endeavors, it is no wonder many Americans see defense department expenditures as a kind of foreign aid, and assume our foreign aid budget is enormous.

Of course, this does not mean that Americans are perfectly informed, or even well informed, about the federal budget. But my findings reinforce an old and reliable rule: If you see a statistic that reinforces a stereotype, look closer.