Government Spending Per Capita Increased 65% in Real Terms Since 1980

How do you feel about the makeup of US government spending now that you have the facts?

The makeup of US government spending provides insight into the goals and functions of government and how they have changed over time. In 2016, these programs accounted for most government spending:

• 16%: programs for the disadvantaged (incl. Medicaid, SNAP, etc.)

• 16%: Social Security

• 15%: education

• 13%: national defense and veterans

• 10%: Medicare

• 6%: retirement for government employees

• 5%: crime and disaster

• 5%: debt service

Combined, these areas made up 86% of all spending in 2016, up from 75% in 1980. The remainder is spent on areas including consumer protection, foreign aid, energy, the environment, border security, public health, economic stability, and general government (<5% each) (Fig. 17).

Much of this increase from 1980 to 2016 was driven by spending on health programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP, which combined increased from 7.0% of total government spending in 1980 to 19.3% in 2016. Meanwhile, defense and veterans spending fell from 18.6% to 13.1% of government spending over that same period. 

2016 spending levels increased 2.5% over 2015 after adjusting for inflation. The largest year-over-year increases were for Medicare (up 8%), Social Security (up 2%), and interest on the debt (up 5%). Some of the largest decreases in spending were for SNAP and other nutritional programs on which the government spent $5 billion less in 2016 as compared to 2015, and foreign affairs and foreign aid, which fell by $4 billion.

Combined government spending in 2016 reached $18,486 per capita, a 65% increase from 1980 when it was $11,177, adjusted for inflation.

Next: Revenue 2016 vs. 1980