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50 Years Of Government Spending, In 1 Graph

Of each dollar the federal government spends, how much goes to defense? How much goes to Social Security? How much goes to interest on the debt? And how has this sort of thing changed over time?

The graphic below answers these questions. It shows the major components of federal spending 50 years ago, 25 years ago, and last year.

A few notes:

Everything else is everything not listed separately on the graphic. That includes education, science, NASA, energy, natural resources, justice, and agriculture, among other things.

Defense spending has shrunk significantly as a percentage of total government spending. But it remains the largest single category of federal spending. The figures in the graph include veterans' benefits as well as funding for current operations.

Medicaid, Medicare and other health services are the huge gainers here. Together, they make up a quarter of government spending. Fifty years ago Medicare and Medicaid didn't even exist, and federal spending on other health-related services made up a tiny sliver of the whole.

Safety net programs include unemployment compensation, food stamps and housing assistance. Spending on these programs surged during and after the most recent recession, as unemployment rose sharply.

Interest refers to interest the government pays on the national debt. In 1987, the interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds was around 9 percent, driving up the share of government spending that went to interest. Today, the rate on 10-year Treasuries is roughly 2 percent.

Bonus Numbers! Federal spending has grown roughly as fast as the overall economy over the past 50 years. In 1962, federal spending was $707 billion and accounted for 18 percent of U.S. GDP. In 2011, federal spending was $3.6 trillion and accounted for 24 percent of GDP. (The dollar figures are adjusted for inflation.)

For More: See the full data set from the Office of Management and Budget.

See more posts from our Graphing America series:

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