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Why We’re $15.7 Trillion in Debt

7:05 AM, May 17, 2012 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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If you ever find yourself engaged in a debate over why our national debt — now $15.7 trillion —has risen $5.9 trillion over the past four years and $15.4 trillion over the past fifty years, NPR has released a useful chart (based on figures provided by the White House Office of Management and Budget) that helps to answer the question.

US Capitol Building at night Jan 2006

As the chart shows, in 1962 — the middle year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency — we spent 52 percent of our federal budget on national defense and 1 percent on federal health programs.  Last year, under President Obama, we spent 23 percent on national defense and 23 percent on federal health programs.  So, while the share of the federal budget that we’ve spent on defense has dropped by 56 percent since JFK, the share of the federal budget that we’ve spend on health programs has risen by 2,200 percent over that same span. 

(I’m using the term, “federal budget” somewhat loosely. The Democratic Senate hasn’t passed a budget since President Obama’s first 100 days in office.)

As the chart shows, even as recently as 25 years ago, in 1987 (under President Reagan), we spent 30 percent of our federal budget on national defense and only 11 percent on federal health programs.  At that point, our national debt was $2.4 trillion — or $13.3 trillion lower than it is today.

Moreover, as the chart shows, if you add in other safety net programs (such as federal unemployment, food stamps, and housing assistance — but excluding Social Security), under Kennedy we spent 7 percent of our federal budget on health programs and safety net programs combined — or $1 for every $7 that we spent on defense.  Under Obama, the share of federal spending that has gone to health programs or safety net programs has ballooned to 36 percent — or $11 for every $7 that we spend on defense. 

In fact, according to Obama’s own figures, we could have eliminated all defense spending last year, and we still would have run a deficit of almost half a trillion dollars — which (at least in actual dollars) is larger than any pre-2009 deficit.  Again, that’s without spending a penny on defense, which accounted for more than half of Kennedy’s 1962 budget.

Just imagine what percentage of the federal budget would come to be spent on health care if Obamacare isn’t repealed — and just imagine how hard it would be for future generations to ever dig out of our $15,700,000,000,000 hole, which is growing deeper by the day.

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