We Need to Change How We Talk About the Budget

Before reading the rest of this article, take a second and guess how much of the total federal budget is comprised of each of these programs: the Department of Defense, Food Stamps/Unemployment, Foreign Aid, Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security.

According to those asked to estimate portions of the federal budget in a 2011 poll by CNN, these are five of the biggest programs in the country, and many of them come up excessively in the debate about government spending. The problem is Americans don’t actually know very much about how the government spends its money. They do, however, know that they don’t like how Washington is spending it.

Most of their complaints reside in the federal debt. People overwhelmingly think the debt is a massive problem, so much so, that a majority of the country — 51 percent based on a 2018 Gallup poll — said they are a “great deal” concerned about the national debt. That 51 is actually a low number. Gallup has been using that question for almost a decade and the highest level, “a great deal concerned,” has never been below 49 percent.

To solve the debt, Americans love to focus on government waste. According to a 2014 Gallup study, Americans think that 51 cents out of every dollar sent to Washington end up wasted. This isn’t just a Republican concept, as Democrats only think that Washington wastes 42 cents on the dollar. In search of the source of this waste, the public often goes after specific programs, such as foreign aid — which the CNN study found 60 percent of Americans want to cut —, or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting  —which only had a plurality who wanted to cut it, at 46 percent. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t line up with the public’s perception.

While few argue the government isn’t wasteful at all, the real amount of waste is nowhere near the level that the public seems to think. Major programs are not things that Americans want to slash, and no one talks about cutting the most expensive programs — Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security — at all. Taking a step back, this makes perfect sense, as the most expensive programs have grown largely because they are popular. Everything that could be easily identified as government waste was cut long ago, and even an unpopular program like Welfare is made up of many smaller programs that are individually popular. 

Here are the real numbers according to the non-partisan, official Congressional Budget Office: out of the $4.0 trillion budget in 2017, Medicare and Medicaid made up the largest portion, totaling in at $1.14 trillion, or over a quarter of the total budget. Social Security came next, at $939 billion, followed by defense spending at $630 billion (with an additional $100 billion for the VA). The Income Security Programs, which most collectively refer to as welfare, comes next at $290 billion, and another area not even included in that initial CNN survey, interest on the debt,  is now up to $280 billion per year and is rapidly rising.

The issue is the above five line-items make up almost $3.4 of the $4.0 trillion in the total budget, with much of the remainder being comprised of transportation and education funding, both of which the public actually wants to increase. Foreign aid, for all of the attention it draws, makes up less than one percent of the federal budget most years, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is even smaller.

So the only real way to balance the federal budget is to either raise taxes drastically or to cut some of America’s favorite programs. The real impetus for this is the cost of some of the most liked programs ­— Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid — have begun to skyrocket as the baby boomers retire. Based on numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, their cumulative cost is going to go from $2.1 trillion ­—already over half of the budget — to just over $4 trillion by 2028. 

This is a problem that cannot be solved by just increasing taxes. Current taxes only bring in $3.3 trillion, which is less than half of what will be needed within a decade.

Ultimately, this means that unless we are willing to double taxes, we are going to have to get serious about how we think about the federal budget. Both parties campaign on fixing the debt. 

Promises that flew out the window as soon as a budget had to be passed. The first step to balancing the budget, however, is being honest about how big the problem really is, and, in the words of our president, it is yuge.

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