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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mandatory Spending Since 1962

D. Andrew Austin
Analyst in Economic Policy

Mindy R. Levit
Analyst in Public Finance

Federal spending is often divided into three categories: discretionary spending, mandatory spending, and net interest. Mandatory spending includes federal government spending on entitlement programs as well as other budget outlays controlled by laws other than appropriation acts. Entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare make up the bulk of mandatory spending. Other mandatory spending programs include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), unemployment insurance, some veterans' benefits, federal employee retirement and disability, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the earned income tax credit (EITC). Discretionary spending is provided and controlled through appropriations acts. 

In 2009, mandatory spending accounted for over half of total federal spending and almost a seventh of gross domestic product (GDP). Social Security accounted for nearly a fifth of federal spending. Medicare and the federal share of Medicaid, the fastest growing components of mandatory spending, together accounted for over a fifth of federal spending. Those three programs, therefore, made up over 40% of federal spending. 

The composition of mandatory spending has changed significantly over the past 40 years. In 1962, before the 1965 creation of Medicare and Medicaid, mandatory spending was less than 30% of all federal spending. At that time, Social Security accounted for about half of all mandatory spending. By 2009, mandatory spending composed 60% of total federal spending. Medicare and Medicaid grew from almost nothing in 1965 to about 5.3% of GDP in 2009. Similarly, Social Security grew from 2.5% of GDP in 1962 to 4.8% in 2009. 

Federal spending has outrun federal revenues for the last eight fiscal years. In the long term, projections suggest that if current policies remain unchanged, the United States faces a major fiscal imbalance, largely due to rising health care costs and impending Baby Boomer retirements. Medicare and the federal portion of Medicaid spending is projected to expand from 5.3% of GDP in 2009 to 17.8% in 2083 according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) extended baseline projection. Social Security is projected to grow from 4.8% of GDP in 2009 to 6.2% of GDP by 2083. Thus, funding health care costs while the U.S. population ages promises to strain federal budgets in coming decades. 

Because discretionary spending is a smaller proportion of total federal outlays compared to mandatory spending, some budget experts contend that any significant reductions in federal spending must include cuts in entitlement spending. Other budget and social policy experts contend that cuts in entitlement spending could compromise their goals: the economic security of the elderly and the poor. Proposals for fundamental reform may strive to ease long-term fiscal strains while preserving the social protection goals of these programs.

Date of Report: February 16, 2010
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RL33074
Price: $29.95

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