Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, national defense spending more than doubled. There was an especially sharp increase in 2006-2008 as the military upgraded its equipment to meet future needs for a “long war on terror.” When President Obama reduced troop levels in Iraq in 2009, the growth in spending slowed down but did not stop. So far, around 67% of the country’s “war on terror” money has gone to the Iraq War while 30% has funded operations in Afghanistan. This ratio is slowly shifting to reflect Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan.
The Gulf War (August 1990 – February 1991) is barely noticeable in terms of military spending because it lasted only seven months and — unlike the Iraq war — enjoyed strong international support. The USA wound up paying for only around a tenth of its total costs, with Saudi Arabia footing much of the bill.
Veterans’ benefits expenses are affected by war, which increases the demand for injury rehabilitation, mental health care, life insurance pay-outs, burials and so on. In the years since campaigns were launched in Iraq and Afghanistan, 0.75 million American soldiers suffered service-related disabilities. The budget for veteran’s benefits doubled during that time, but a continuing backlog means the average veteran waits 160 days for his or her claim to be processed.
The United States government spends six times more defense money than the country with the next most expensive military, China. Less than one per cent of national defense spending is mandatory, which means the rest needs to be approved by the government each year. “As a matter of principle and political reality,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2010, “the Department of Defense cannot go to America's elected representatives and ask for increases each year unless we have done everything possible to make every dollar count.”
About a third of America’s debt is money that the government has borrowed from its own social security trust funds. This may not sound like it should add to the country’s expenses, but it does. In order for services such as unemployment insurance to be sustainable, social security trust funds need to grow over the years. Therefore, the government has to pay interest on its trust fund loans, just as any other investor would.
The other 67% of the debt is owned by private citizens, insurance companies, pension and mutual funds, state governments and foreign investors, particularly the governments of China and Japan. During the recent financial crisis, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao caused a stir by saying “To be honest, I'm a little bit worried. I would like to call on the United States to honour its words, stay a credible nation and ensure the safety of Chinese assets."
A growing economy during the Clinton years allowed the government to take in more taxes than it spent. It used these surpluses to begin paying off the debt for the first time since World War II. Accordingly, interest payments dipped slightly.
From the 1980s onwards, income tax cuts were instrumental in swelling the national debt. A particularly large tax cut on capital gains in 2003 — coupled with a rise in defense spending following the 9/11 attacks — created budget deficits larger than any before.
With the added weight of economic stimulus packages, the national debt currently stands at 62 per cent of the gross domestic product. Just as a family’s income affects the size of a mortgage it can realistically expect, so does the country’s GDP affect how comfortable lenders feel with its ability to pay the debt’s interest and capital. Only one other time in US history — during and shortly after World War II — has the national debt exceeded 50 percent of the GDP.
An achievement gap between the nation’s students was the rationale for No Child Left Behind, an education reform that evaluated schools and tried to hold them accountable for students’ progress. To support NCLB, the government increased education spending steadily from 2001 until 2006, providing more resources for science, reading and foreign language programs. President Obama says he now intends to replace NCLB with “a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as “the stimulus,” gave a one-time $53.6 billion sum to the Department of Education. The money was intended to help schools and colleges avoid making cuts and modernize their buildings.
Always a hefty share of the education budget, financial aid programs send millions of students to college each year. The backbone of federal student aid is the Pell Grant Program, which offers funds that students don’t need to repay. “Pell Grants,” said former senator Chris Dodd, “are, and have been, critically important tools in making higher education a possibility for lower- and middle-income students.”
The government must give a fixed proportion of the taxes it collects to the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which collected $600.6 billion in 2011. As the “baby boomer” generation ages and retires, the cost of paying out retirement and survivor benefits is expected to increase more rapidly than tax income. The funds’ trustees forecast that unless it starts collecting more income than it does now, it will be exhausted by 2040.
After over 7 million people lost their jobs during the recession of the late 2000s, many states depleted their unemployment coffers. To help states make ends meet, the federal government loaned them billions from the Unemployment Trust Fund.
“We will end welfare as we know it,” was President Clinton’s promise in 1996, when his administration gave states more responsibility for benefits such as housing and nutrition assistance. The act also required welfare programs to get more aggressive about establishing paternity, enforcing child support payments and helping recipients find work. These reforms may have helped to keep welfare spending steady throughout the late ‘90s, although some skeptics say it was merely a strong economy that did so.
Most of the federal health budget is given to states to run Medicaid, the program that covers the medical expenses of many low-income citizens including one third of the nation’s children. When millions of Americans lost their jobs during the recent recession, they also lost their health insurance. In response, the government temporarily increased its Medicaid contributions to states by an estimated $87 billion. To be eligible for this boost, states could not restrict their eligibility requirements. Some states even decided to made it easier than before to access Medicaid.
President Obama’s health care reforms of 2010 required most Americans to buy medical insurance and subsidized it for low-income customers. These changes carry a high price tag, but some analysts believe that taxes on the high-premium health insurance plans owned by wealthier Americans may offset these expenses.
“He that has not health, has nothing,” claims an old French proverb, and like other developed countries, America spends a good fifth of its budget on health and medicare. But unlike these countries, it does not offer universal care: for every dollar the government spends on health, another dollar comes out of private insurance plans or patients’ pockets.
Taking this into account, Americans spend more on health and medicare than any other nation. Yet this does not seem to buy them better health: in fact, they have a shorter-than-average life expectancy and a higher-than-average child mortality rate.
41 per cent of Americans consider the environment a top priority. This is less than in recent years but it nevertheless indicates that voters consider managing natural resources and the environment to be more important than its share of the budget would suggest.
This account includes the cost of running the federal court and prison system, as well as border protection and immigration control. After heated congressional debates in the 2000s, immigration control programs gained extra funds to update their IT systems and attempt to build a high-tech fence along the Mexican border.
The Department of Energy has been a “poor cousin” among government agencies almost as far back as its creation in 1977. President Reagan wanted to abolish the federal government’s involvement with energy altogether but left the department intact to manage nuclear weapons and waste. It received a very modest slice of the budget to do so until 2009, when the Obama administration decided to invest billions into energy as part of the “stimulus package.” Energy conservation and renewable energy projects received the biggest slices of this windfall.
The average American vastly overestimates the percentage of the budget spent on foreign aid, according to a World Public Opinion poll. Most respondents guessed that 25 per cent of federal money goes to aid while the actual proportion is currently less than one per cent, not counting foreign military financing.
We wanted to create a visualization that would blend storytelling and exploration, giving users the opportunity to better understand the US federal budget using familiar visual metaphors.
Starting from the perspective of your own priorities and tax profile, you can explore the budget both from a global and a personal perspective.
Navigate through three different representations that will allow you to focus on a specific year, account or overall period. Manipulate the timeline to change the year or period viewed.
Learn more about the different functions of the US federal budget by exploring and reading stories that will take you to different parts of the visualization.
by: Sébastien Pierre, Audrée Lapierre, Samantha Rideout, James McKinney
fonts: droid sans droid serif, made in 2011 using HTML5