Letter to Our Readers

Now that you have the facts, contact your elected representative for issues you care about.

The changing American experience

Dear Reader,

Our government’s mission is clearly outlined in the US Constitution: to establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. What may be less clear is how to measure progress toward that more perfect union. Certainly, we need our government to make decisions based on the facts; government numbers provide historical progress, or lack thereof, with more accuracy and context than any other available source. At a time when the most basic facts of public life are subject to dispute, this common understanding is more important than ever.

I founded USAFacts in 2017 because I wanted to know how the government collects and spends money on behalf of Americans and if it was contributing to a better quality of life. I wanted that information to be available to the public and easy to understand, so we put it all on a website, USAFacts.org. We also assemble that data each year in an annual report, to allow you to form your own views of how our government is serving citizens, so that you can decide and advocate for where we should go as a country.

The most recent data tells us our government collected $5.1 trillion from taxpayers and other sources and spent $5.9 trillion; that equates to $18,114 for every person living in the US. Since only half of spending is driven by the federal government, we look at combined spending by federal, state and local governments. Without the big picture of government in its entirety, it is hard to tell which part is responsible for outcomes like keeping Americans healthy, fixing our roads, or educating our nation’s children.

This year in our Annual Report, we focus on who lives in the United States and the quality of their lives – who is born in here and who moves here, who goes to college, starts families and careers, stays healthy or gets sick, lives in affluence or poverty or in between, and grows old. These numbers represent our families, our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves. They show how we are changing: making progress in areas like education, where 69.8% of students graduating high school in 2017 attended college (up more than 20 points since 1980), and falling back in areas like homeownership, which has decreased 5 points over the past decade to 64% in 2016.

Although this report should be read in its entirety to understand the state of our nation, here are a few numbers that caught special attention from me:

America is going through significant demographic changes. We are growing older; the median age of Americans is rising. Seniors now make up 16% of the population (up from 11% in 1980), and children under 18 make up 23% of the population (down from 28%). Seniors earn less in wages than other Americans, which is one factor that depresses national median household income. America is becoming more diverse. White (non-Hispanic) people are 61% of the population today, down from 76% in 1990. And our population is growing nearly equally from people moving to the US (48% of population growth from 2017-2018) as it is from births exceeding deaths (52% of growth). The US is currently made up of more first-generation immigrants (14%) than it has been since the early 1900s.

The American household is shrinking. More people are living alone in America, a greater share of the population is divorced, and there are more single-parent families and households without children. All of this is leading to a shrinking average household size, meaning fewer wage earners per household, again pushing down median household income.

Families in the middle 20% receive more from the government in 2017 than they did in 2000. Families and individuals in the middle 20% of income earners make 9% less in wages and salaries than they did in 2000; however, they also receive 59% more in transfers from the government and pay 12% less in taxes. This decline in wages and salaries was true for every family type in the middle 20% except the elderly, who saw a 13% increase in wages over this time period, possibly due to higher employment among this group (18.6% employment in 2017 compared to 12.5% in 2000). An earnings gap persists between genders, with women earning 80.5 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts in 2017, although it has improved from 74 cents in 2000. 

While educational outcomes are improving for all students, the outcomes of our school system vary widely by race and ethnicity. Since 1992, eighth-grade math scores have improved 19 percentage points and reading scores 7 percentage points. Black and Hispanic students are now twice as likely to have completed college than in 1993. However, test scores vary widely by race: 55% of Asian students are proficient in reading compared to 45% of White students, 23% of Hispanic students, and 18% of Black students. 

Crime and incarceration rates are falling but differ among demographic groups. Rates of violent crime and property crime have fallen by more than half since 1991. However, arrest rates for drug crimes increased 25% and are now the most common arrest. Although the incarceration rate is falling across races, Black Americans, despite accounting for 12% of the population, make up 27% of arrests and 33% of prisoners today.

As seniors become a larger share of the American population, they are working longer and earning more, and government is spending more for their health and well-being. Compared to 1980, seniors today are 55% more likely to be employed and make up an increasing share of the workforce. As a result, in 2017 the average family with a head of household over 65 made $32,214 from employment (compared to $20,790 in 2000) and received $20,492 in Social Security (compared to $19,997 in 2000). Social Security and Medicare, the largest government programs to aid seniors, now account for 26% of Federal government spending, up from 18% in 1980.

Health care spending per person is increasing, but life expectancy is falling and the age that people die is staying the same. We spend $2.9 trillion, or $9,107 per person, on healthcare in the United States, an increase of 59% since 1999. Over this same period, however, we haven’t seen improvements in our life expectancy, which has decreased each of the past three years, or in the average age we die, which has only increased by 0.7 years since 1999 to 73.1.

As we choose leaders who make decisions about how to spend our money and manage our nation, we need to understand how our country is changing and how those changes impact the policies we pursue. We must continue to find data, organize it, and make it accessible and understandable to the public. A new federal law mandates that federal agencies make their data machine-readable by 2020. That’s an amazing step forward for researchers like us, who have analyzed government data from PDFs, CDs, and other archaic sources to bring it all together for you. 

We hope you will use these numbers to challenge your assumptions and strengthen your understanding of our society. Use data when you watch the news, when doing research, when teaching students, when writing laws, when scrolling through social media, and especially when voting. We’ll give you the numbers. You get to decide.

Thank you for your attention to the facts.


Steve Ballmer

Next: We The People