Looking back at 52 years of government spending
For Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, the way the government spends taxpayer money is a source of interest. No matter which party is in the White House, more than half of the federal budget goes toward Social Security and Medicare—health care for the elderly.
To fund the government, the president proposes a budget. Then Congress has to talk it over and vote before anything gets the green light. The approval process generally takes a considerable amount of time. To avoid a government shutdown, Congress usually ushers through temporary spending measures to keep things going.
From Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019, the longest U.S. government shutdown took place. Hundreds of thousands of employees covering nine executive departments were shut down when President Donald Trump and Congress could not reach an agreement on 2019 fiscal spending. Following up on his campaign promise, Trump refused to sign an appropriations bill that did not include massive funding for the construction of a border wall.
In all, the CBO estimated the shutdown cost the government upwards of $11 billion. Though Trump ended the shutdown by signing a spending bill, he also declared a national emergency to free up billions more for the border. While the unique quality of this particular impasse has garnered a great deal of recent attention, it is not the only controversial—or expensive—moment in budget history.
Using the most recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data released, Stacker created a list looking back at 52 years of government spending. Governmental statistical agencies and private organizations collected the data, which includes the national income and product accounts, surveys of labor market conditions and prices, the Statistics of Income database, the Current Population Survey, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, data on national health expenditures, various health care surveys, and data on financial transactions. All figures have been adjusted to account for inflation.
Click through to see what government spending looks like through the years.
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- Total spending: $178 billion ($1.314 trillion inflation-adjusted, 19.8% of GDP)
- Defense: $82 billion ($606 billion inflation-adjusted, 9.1% of GDP)
- Social Security: $23 billion ($172 billion inflation-adjusted, 2.6% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $7 billion ($51 billion inflation-adjusted, 0.8% of GDP)
The war in Vietnam continued in 1968, resulting in a rise in defense spending. President Lyndon B. Johnson requested a tax increase on both corporate and individual incomes—exempt to those in the low-income bracket—to help pay for the continued expenses of the war.
- Total spending: $184 billion ($1.284 trillion inflation-adjusted, 18.7% of GDP)
- Defense: $83 billion ($579 billion inflation-adjusted, 8.4% of GDP)
- Social Security: $27 billion ($187 billion inflation-adjusted, 2.7% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $9 billion ($60 billion inflation-adjusted, 0.8% of GDP)
Defense spending remained high to continue funding the Vietnam war effort. Because of the war, President Johnson requested delaying some federally funded programs as well as a tax increase. By the end of fiscal year 1969, the federal government ended up with a budget surplus.
- Total spending: $196 billion ($1.294 trillion inflation-adjusted, 18.6% of GDP)
- Defense: $82 billion ($542 billion inflation-adjusted, 7.8% of GDP)
- Social Security: $30 billion ($196 billion inflation-adjusted, 2.8% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $10 billion ($63 billion inflation-adjusted, 0.9% of GDP)
Before he left office, President Johnson—who signed Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1964—called for a focus on domestic programs to help “disadvantaged groups obtain a fairer share” of the economy. Spending on education, health care, pensions, and welfare all increased in 1970, and the Environmental Protection Agency formed the same year.
- Total spending: $210 billion ($1.333 trillion inflation-adjusted, 18.8% of GDP)
- Defense: $79 billion ($501 billion inflation-adjusted, 7.1% of GDP)
- Social Security: $35 billion ($223 billion inflation-adjusted, 3.1% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $11 billion ($69 billion inflation-adjusted, 1% of GDP)
President Richard Nixon began withdrawing troops from Vietnam in 1969. With the war winding down, defense spending decreased. Environmental supporters held the first Earth Day in 1970, and when President Nixon addressed Congress about the 1971 budget, he called for increased spending to protect environmental pollution.
- Total spending: $231 billion ($1.417 trillion inflation-adjusted, 18.9% of GDP)
- Defense: $79 billion ($487 billion inflation-adjusted, 6.5% of GDP)
- Social Security: $39 billion ($242 billion inflation-adjusted, 3.2% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $13 billion ($80 billion inflation-adjusted, 1.1% of GDP)
When President Nixon addressed Congress about his 1972 budget, he requested an increase in defense spending. However, the increase from 1971 was still a decrease in the percentage of the overall budget compared to previous years. Because of rising inflation, Nixon enacted a 90-day freeze on prices and wages.
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- Total spending: $246 billion ($1.421 trillion inflation-adjusted, 18.1% of GDP)
- Defense: $77 billion ($446 billion inflation-adjusted, 5.7% of GDP)
- Social Security: $48 billion ($279 billion inflation-adjusted, 3.6% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $14 billion ($79 billion inflation-adjusted, 1% of GDP)
New Social Security legislation led to an increase in Social Security spending in 1973. With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the United States ended its direct involvement with the Vietnam War. Defense spending decreased in 1973. Unfortunately, the cost of the war—along with rising gas prices and a crash on Wall Street, led to a three-year recession starting in 1973.
- Total spending: $269 billion ($1.403 trillion inflation-adjusted, 18.1% of GDP)
- Defense: $81 billion ($420 billion inflation-adjusted, 5.4% of GDP)
- Social Security: $55 billion ($286 billion inflation-adjusted, 3.7% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $17 billion ($86 billion inflation-adjusted, 1.1% of GDP)
In his 1974 budget, President Nixon focused on an increase in health care coverage and welfare reform, and both saw the largest increase in spending. The food stamps program (now known as SNAP) began, and Nixon expanded Medicaid with an HMO expansion bill—the Health Maintenance Organization Act, which passed at the end of 1973. Nixon ended the price-wage controls.
- Total spending: $332 billion ($1.586 trillion inflation-adjusted, 20.6% of GDP)
- Defense: $88 billion ($418 billion inflation-adjusted, 5.4% of GDP)
- Social Security: $64 billion ($304 billion inflation-adjusted, 3.9% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $21 billion ($100 billion inflation-adjusted, 1.3% of GDP)
Spending on social welfare programs increased in 1975. Funding continued for welfare programs like food stamps and the Supplemental Security Income, which provides money and access to Medicaid for those 65 and older, and for those who are blind or disabled.
- Total spending: $372 billion ($1.678 trillion inflation-adjusted, 20.8% of GDP)
- Defense: $90 billion ($406 billion inflation-adjusted, 5% of GDP)
- Social Security: $73 billion ($328 billion inflation-adjusted, 4.1% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $26 billion ($115 billion inflation-adjusted, 1.4% of GDP)
With the Vietnam war in the past, defense spending continued to see the smallest increase of any federal program in 1976. President Gerald Ford cut taxes going into fiscal year 1976, but he vowed not to increase spending on programs other than those dedicated to national security and achieving energy independence.
- Total spending: $409 billion ($1.734 trillion inflation-adjusted, 20.2% of GDP)
- Defense: $98 billion ($413 billion inflation-adjusted, 4.8% of GDP)
- Social Security: $84 billion ($355 billion inflation-adjusted, 4.1% of GDP)
- Medicare/Medicaid: $31 billion ($130 billion inflation-adjusted, 1.5% of GDP)
Defending the country was a high priority for President Ford, so he increased defense spending. Funding for Medicare heightened, and a cost-of-living increase for Social Security went through.
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