Reading: Federal Government Spending

Total U.S. Government Spending

Government spending covers a range of services provided by the federal, state, and local governments. When the federal government spends more money than it receives in taxes in a given year, it runs a budget deficit. Conversely, when the government receives more money in taxes than it spends in a year, it runs a budget surplus. If government spending and taxes are equal, it is said to have a balanced budget. For example, in 2009, the U.S. government experienced its largest budget deficit ever, as the federal government spent $1.4 trillion more than it collected in taxes. This deficit was about 10% of the size of the U.S. GDP in 2009, making it by far the largest budget deficit relative to GDP since the mammoth borrowing used to finance World War II.

Federal spending in nominal dollars (that is, dollars not adjusted for inflation) has grown by a multiple of more than 38 over the last four decades, from $92 billion in 1960 to $3.6 trillion in 2012. Comparing spending over time in nominal dollars is misleading because it does not take into account inflation or growth in population and the real economy. A more useful method of comparison is to examine government spending as a percent of GDP over time.

The top line in Figure 16.2 shows the level of federal spending since 1960, expressed as a share of GDP. Despite a widespread sense among many Americans that the federal government has been growing steadily larger, the graph shows that federal spending has hovered in a range from 18% to 22% of GDP most of the time since 1960. The other lines in Figure 16.2 show the major federal spending categories: national defense, Social Security, health programs, and interest payments. From the graph, we see that national defense spending as a share of GDP has generally declined since the 1960s, although there were some upward bumps in the 1980s buildup under President Ronald Reagan and in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In contrast, Social Security and healthcare have grown steadily as a percent of GDP. Healthcare expenditures include both payments for senior citizens (Medicare), and payments for low-income Americans (Medicaid). Medicaid is also partially funded by state governments. Interest payments are the final main category of government spending shown in the figure.

The graph shows five lines that represent different government spending from 1960 to 2010. Total federal spending has always remained above 17%. National defense has never risen above 10% and is currently closer to 5%. Social security has never risen above 5%. Net interest has always remained below 5% and today is less than 2%. Health is the only line on the graph that has primarily increased since 1960 when it was below 1% to 2010 when it was closer to 5%. Figure 16.2. Federal Spending, 1960–2010. Since 1960, total federal spending has ranged from about 18% to 22% of GDP, although it climbed above that level in 2009. The share spent on national defense has generally declined, while the share spent on Social Security and on healthcare expenses (mainly Medicare and Medicaid) has increased. (Source: Economic Report of the President, Tables B-80 and B-1, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/ERP-2013/content-detail.html)


Each year, the government borrows funds from U.S. citizens and foreigners to cover its budget deficits. It does this by selling securities (Treasury bonds, notes, and bills)—in essence borrowing from the public and promising to repay with interest in the future. From 1961 to 1997, the U.S. government has run budget deficits, and thus borrowed funds, in almost every year. It had budget surpluses from 1998 to 2001, and then returned to deficits.

The interest payments on past federal government borrowing were typically 1–2% of GDP in the 1960s and 1970s but then climbed above 3% of GDP in the 1980s and stayed there until the late 1990s. The government was able to repay some of its past borrowing by running surpluses from 1998 to 2001 and, with help from low interest rates, the interest payments on past federal government borrowing had fallen back to 1.4% of GDP by 2012.

We investigate the patterns of government borrowing and debt in more detail later in this chapter, but first we need to clarify the difference between the deficit and the debt. The deficit is not the debt. The difference between the deficit and the debt lies in the time frame. The government deficit (or surplus) refers to what happens with the federal government budget each year. The government debt is accumulated over time; it is the sum of all past deficits and surpluses. If you borrow $10,000 per year for each of the four years of college, you might say that your annual deficit was $10,000, but your accumulated debt over the four years is $40,000.

These four categories—national defense, Social Security, healthcare, and interest payments—account for roughly 71% of all federal spending, as Figure 16.3 shows. The remaining 29% wedge of the pie chart covers all other categories of federal government spending: international affairs; science and technology; natural resources and the environment; transportation; housing; education; income support for the poor; community and regional development; law enforcement and the judicial system; and the administrative costs of running the government.

The pie chart shows that healthcare makes up 24% of federal spending; Social Security makes up 22%; national defense makes up 19%; net interest makes up 5% and all other spending makes up 33%. Figure 16.3. Slices of Federal Spending, 2012. About 71% of government spending goes to four major areas: national defense, Social Security, healthcare, and interest payments on past borrowing. This leaves about 29% of federal spending for all other functions of the U.S. government. (Source: Economic Report of the President, Table B-80, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/ERP-2013/content-detail.html)


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