Advocates of foreign aid like to point out that each American's share is just enough to buy three large pizzas--about $45 a year.
Opponents say even that is a waste of tax dollars and that unending poverty in longtime client countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia proves U.S. aid programs have not worked.
By the time the budget-cutting Republican Congress gets through with President Clinton's aid proposals, the share of national wealth going into aid will sink to a half-century low.
Family-planning efforts in India's Uttar Pradesh state, food aid for Eritrea, water pump installations in Guatemala, support for Russian democracy--all are threatened with cuts ranging from 8% to 100%.
Only Israel and Egypt, which get about 40% of total U.S. aid, are spared.
Julia Taft, head of InterAction, which represents dozens of private relief groups, fears the result will be "a tidal wave of human misery." Randall Robinson of the TransAfrica lobby calls the cuts racist because the deepest impact will be on Africa.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the big reductions are "unfortunate, but a direct function of the budget reality." They are part of slashes that Republicans are trying to make across the federal government.
Since 1946, the United States has given away just under $437 billion, about two-thirds in military aid. This year's aid, when adjusted for inflation, is half what it was when foreign aid programs started at the end of World War II.
The United States now ranks behind Japan in total foreign aid dollars, and France is closing in rapidly. America sits last among industrialized nations in the share of national production given to poorer countries.
This is a radical change from the Cold War when American aid, military and social, poured into U.S.-aligned countries around the world largely to head off communist influence.
Total U.S. aid already is 25% below the peak of a decade ago in actual dollars. The new cuts will knock it down that much or more in a single year and set the stage for an extensive U.S. withdrawal from aid programs and countries around the world.
Polls say Americans have an inflated idea of their foreign aid bill. When asked how much they think it is, most say about 20% of the budget. Asked what it ought to be, they say about 5%. In fact, it is less than 1%.
But nobody is campaigning seriously for increases. The battle to hold back cuts is tough enough.
The Administration asked for $14.7 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, up from the $13.5 billion being spent this year. The House approved $11.9 billion, slashing more than 30% from most accounts while retaining $3 billion for Israel and $2.1 billion for Egypt. The Senate bill has variations but makes cuts just as deep.
As the world weans itself from American aid, the U.S. Agency for International Development is scrambling to streamline its already slimmed-down operations. Private groups are scraping for alternatives to U.S. help.
Dire projections are being made of the impact of a U.S. pullback from food, health, family planning, environment, small loan projects and other assistance programs.
"I think it's fair to say that all programs in which we are engaged are going to be affected to some degree," said Brian Atwood, administrator of USAID, through which U.S. humanitarian and development aid flows.
Atwood's lament: "Children will suffer. . . . People in societies where population has grown so large that it's outgrown the food supply will suffer. . . . We will not have the resources to produce the next green revolution. . . . We will have to reduce the number of countries in which we work."
Atwood and others also worry about efforts to fight AIDS, slow world population growth, improve literacy, protect the rain forests. They say the United States could lose jobs as Third World trading partners wither.
In Washington, the key debate focuses not on who will suffer abroad from the reductions but on how much America and its influence will suffer.
"What's at stake here is American leadership," Atwood said in an interview.
Aid opponents discount fears about the humanitarian and political impact of cuts as alarmist and tout growing free markets as the cure for world financial woes. They say U.S. leadership in aid has accomplished nothing.
"The history of development and humanitarian assistance overwhelmingly shows that the private sector can take care of those areas far better than Brian Atwood and [USAID] can do," said Bryan Johnson, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Aid officials say several onetime aid recipients, including South Korea, have become aid donors and others are ready to graduate.
Doug Bandow, of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, calls government claims of broad success and imminent disaster "wondrous propaganda." He said dismal predictions assume that there are no private humanitarian groups or other donors to fill the gap.
But other rich countries are following America in retreat. Although many are outpacing the United States in foreign aid, they now face similar pressure to reduce government spending.
Private assistance groups worry that many recipients will be left out in the scramble for a share of shrinking donations.