Social Spending: Just the Facts

Overview and Trends

* As defined by government agencies and academic publications, government “social spending” pays for programs that provide healthcare, income security, education, nutrition, housing, and cultural services.[

* From broadest to narrowest, some measures of government social spending are:

* From 1960 to 2017, the portion of government outlays consumed by various measures of social spending increased by 1.9–3.0 times:


Social Welfare Expenditures

* “Social welfare expenditures”—a measure of social spending published by the U.S. Social Security Administration until 1995—includes: cash and medical benefits, services, and administrative costs for all programs operating under public law that are of direct benefit to individuals and families. Included are programs providing income maintenance and health benefits through social insurance and public aid, and those providing public support of health, education, housing, and other welfare services.

* During 100+ years for which data on social welfare expenditures are available, the following factors had major impacts on such spending:

  • The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted for about a decade. It was the worst and longest depression in modern Western history.
  • Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became President of the United States in 1933. At the time, Congress contained large Democratic majorities and passed much of his agenda, including cash welfare for people with financial hardships, housing projects, the formation of the Social Security program, and low-interest loans to help individuals pay their mortgages.
  • World War II began in 1939, the U.S. joined it in 1941, and it ended in 1945. It was the most widespread and deadliest conflict in world history, claiming 40–50 million lives.
  • Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) became President of the United States in late 1963 and called for a “war on poverty” in 1964. At the time, Congress contained large Democratic majorities and passed much of his agenda, including the creation or expansion of Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, unemployment insurance, and public housing.

* From 1890 to 1995, government social welfare expenditures increased from 2% of the U.S. economy to 20%:


Human Resources

* “Human resources”—a measure of social spending published by the White House Office of Management & Budget—includes spending on:

  • health programs, such as healthcare services, research, and training.
  • income security programs, such as old-age benefits, disability benefits unemployment benefits, cash assistance, housing, and food.
  • education, training, employment, and social services.
  • veterans benefits.
  • government employee retirement and disability benefits.
  • refundable tax preferences for social purposes, which give people cash payments that exceed any income taxes they pay.

* In 2017, the federal government spent $2,899 billion on human resources. This amounts to:

  • 73% of all federal outlays.
  • $8,901 for every person living in the U.S.
  • $22,970 for every household in the U.S.
  • 15.1% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

* From 1940 (shortly after the Great Depression) to 2017, spending on human resources increased from 44% of all federal outlays to 73%:


Social Programs

* “Social programs”—a measure of social spending published by Just Facts based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and White House Office of Management & Budget—includes:

  • health programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare, and health research.
  • income security programs, such as means-tested welfare, old-age benefits, disability benefits, unemployment benefits, and social services.
  • education, such as preschools, K–12 schools, higher education, and libraries.
  • housing and community services.
  • recreation and culture.
  • refundable tax preferences for social purposes, which give people cash payments that exceed any income taxes they pay.

* This measure does not include:

  • federal employee retirement and disability benefits.
  • veterans’ benefits.

* In 2017, the federal government spent $2,677 billion on social programs. This amounts to:

  • 63% of all current federal spending.
  • $8,218 for every person living in the U.S.
  • $21,208 for every household in the U.S.
  • 13.7% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

* In 2017, federal, state, and local governments spent $3,882 billion on social programs. This amounts to:

  • 60% of all current government spending.
  • $11,918 for every person living in the U.S.
  • $30,755 for every household in the U.S.
  • 19.9% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

* From 1959 to 2017, spending on social programs increased from:

  • 20% of all federal outlays to 63%.
  • 30% of all federal, state and local outlays to 60%:

Social Benefits

* “Social benefits”—a measure of social spending published by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis—includes:

  • “payments from social insurance funds, such as social security and Medicare.”
  • “payments providing other income support, such as Medicaid and food stamp benefits.”
  • some veterans’ benefits.
  • refundable tax preferences for social purposes, which give people cash payments that exceed any income taxes they pay.

* This measure does not include:

  • most education spending.
  • recreation and culture.
  • federal employee retirement and disability benefits.

* In 2017, the federal government spent $2,456 billion on social benefits. This amounts to:

  • 56% of all federal spending.
  • $6,423 for every person living in the U.S.
  • $16,574 for every household in the U.S.
  • 10.7% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

* In 2017, federal, state, and local governments spent $2,826 billion on social benefits.[74] This amounts to:

  • 43% of all government spending.
  • $8,676 for every person living in the U.S.
  • $22,389 for every household in the U.S.
  • 14.5% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

* From 1960 to 2017, spending on social benefits increased from:

  • 19% of all federal outlays to 56%.
  • 16% of all federal, state and local outlays to 43%:

For more information, visit https://www.justfacts.com/socialspending.asp.