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Government spending or expenditure includes all government consumption, investment, and transfer payments.[1][2] In national income accounting the acquisition by governments of goods and services for current use, to directly satisfy the individual or collective needs of the community, is classed as government final consumption expenditure. Government acquisition of goods and services intended to create future benefits, such as infrastructure investment or research spending, is classed as government investment (government gross capital formation). These two types of government spending, on final consumption and on gross capital formation, together constitute one of the major components of gross domestic product.

Government spending can be financed by government borrowing, seigniorage, or taxes. Changes in government spending is a major component of fiscal policy used to stabilize the macroeconomic business cycle.


Components of Federal Government SpendingEdit

For most governments around the world, the majority of government spending takes place at the federal/national level. As of the 21st century, in the United States, approximately two thirds of government spending is spent by the federal government, while the remaining 1/3 of government spending is spent by state and local governments.[3] Federal government spending in the United States can be broken down into 3 general categories: mandatory/entitlement spending, discretionary spending, and interest on government debt.[4]

Mandatory/Entitlement SpendingEdit

Figure A - Fiscal Year 2019 Mandatory Government Spending Breakdown as a percentage of total expected expenditures. Data from U.S. Office of Management and Budget archives.

Mandatory/Entitlement Spending is spending for programs with funding levels that are automatically determined by the number of eligible recipients in those programs.[3] Mandatory programs are created under authorization laws, meaning that congress must provide whatever funds are necessary to keep these programs functional. Funding for these programs cannot be adjusted in the annual budget process; on the contrary, the only way congress can change funding levels for these programs is by amending the authorization laws directly. Each year, the Office of Management and Budget provides an estimate of required funds for these programs, which is included in the annual budget.[4][5]

Mandatory Programs Include:[6]

Figure A provides a breakdown of the major mandatory government spending categories as of the fiscal year 2019 budget approved by congress. As Figure A suggests, Social Security is the single largest mandatory spending item, taking up 38% or nearly $1,050 billion of the $2,736 billion total. The next largest expenditures are Medicare and Income Security, with the remaining amount going to Medicaid, Veterans Benefits, and Other programs.[6][7]

Discretionary SpendingEdit

Figure B - Fiscal Year 2019 Discretionary Spending Breakdown as a percentage of total expected expenditures. Data from U.S. Office of Management and Budget archives.

Discretionary Spending is optional spending that is determined by congress each year through an annual appropriations process.[3] After mandatory spending levels have been estimated by the Office of Management and Budget, discretionary spending is determined by both chambers of congress and usually includes input from the current President of the United States. Subcommittees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate appropriate discretionary funds for their respective areas, and the two chambers reconcile their differences. Once a final spending bill has been created, passed and signed by the president, the bill becomes law.[3][4]

Discretionary Spending includes:[8]

  • Defense: Spending attributable to the maintenance and strengthening of the United States armed forces. See National Defense Spending section below for more details.
  • Non-Defense:
    • Transportation: Road improvements and repairs, air traffic control, Amtrak and other infrastructure investments.
    • Education: K-12 Education Grants, school choice programs, disability and special education programs, and lunch assistance.
    • Other Veterans Benefits.
    • Public Health, Law Enforcement, Natural Resources, and Science.
    • Housing Assistance and Community Services.
    • Foreign Affairs and Other Expenditures.

Figure B provides a snapshot of the major discretionary government spending categories as of the fiscal year 2019 budget approved by congress. As the figure suggests, over 50% of discretionary spending is attributed to national defense. The remaining 48% of funds is divided among non-defense items such as transportation and education. Total Discretionary Spending approved for the fiscal year 2019 is $1,305 billion, just 28% of total spending.[5]

Interest on Government DebtEdit

Often times, federal governments spend more money than they collect in tax revenue in a given year. When the government spends more than it brings in, it runs a Budget Deficit that year.[9] In order to pay for the extra spending, governments issue debt. Government Debt is the amount of money borrowed from individuals, firms, or foreign entities.[3] Debt accrues over time. Most public debt is held in the form of treasury bills and bonds, and the government has to pay down debt over time. In order to provide an incentive for individuals, businesses and other entities to lend money, the government must also pay these parties interest on the debt.[10] The interest expense for fiscal year 2019 is $363 billion, or 7.9% of the total budget. According to estimates from the Office of Management and Budget, interest on government debt is expected to more than double by 2028 and account for a larger percentage of total expenditures.[5]

State and Local Government SpendingEdit

At the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of government spending in the United States took place at the local level. However, federal spending increased relative to state and local spending as a result of World War I and World War II, and by the 1930s, state and local government spending accounted for less than one half of government spending. By 2010, federal spending was more than 20% of GDP, while state and local spending ranged from 8%-10% of GDP.[10][11] As a result, in recent years, state and local governments account for approximately 1/3 of total government expenditures.[3] State and local government spending is typically spent in 6 broad categories: elementary and secondary education, higher education, health, welfare, police and safety, and transportation.[3][12] Over the last few decades, funding for education at the state level has fallen, while funding for health has more than doubled.[13]

While federal governments often run budget deficits (where government spending > government tax revenue), state governments usually have balanced budgets.[3] A balanced budget is when government spending in a given year equals government revenue in that year.[14][15] This high degree of fiscal responsibly is a result of most states in the U.S. having balanced budget requirements.[16] A balanced budget requirement is a law that requires a government to balance its budget annually, such that government spending equals government revenue.[17] There are two types of balanced budget requirements: ex-post balanced budget requirements, and ex-ante balanced budget requirements. An ex-post balanced budget requirement stipulates that a government must balance their budget by the end of each fiscal year, while an ex-ante balanced budget requirement dictates that a state must adopt a balanced budget at the beginning of each fiscal year. Ex-ante balanced budget requirements rely on estimates and assumptions about future costs and revenue growth, so they are more easily manipulated.[3][17]


With a population of nearly 40 million as of 2018, California has by far the largest annual state expenditures.[18][19] California receives a significant amount of money from the federal government, especially for healthcare and welfare programs, but also has large in-state expenditures.[20] According to California's Department of Finance, the state's 2017-2018 enacted state budget includes over $180 billion in state funds.[18] As can be seen below, Table 1 gives an overview of California's 2017-2018 enacted state budget. As the table suggests, Heath Care and K12 Education represent California's largest expenditures of state funds. The largest heath care expenditure is for California's Medi-Cal program, a health insurance program for low-income families in California.[21][22] In addition, health care spending is focused on women's health services, treatment for addiction, and dentistry.[21] As Table 1 suggests, California also spends significantly on higher education, police, and transportation, with smaller portions of funding attributable to environmental protection and other activities.[18]

Table 1. 2017-2018 California State Spending
State Agency State Funds ($ Billions) Percent (%) of Total
Health Care $60.3 33%
K12 Education $54.2 30%
Higher Education $15.4 8%
Corrections and Rehab $13.9 8%
Transportation $13.0 7%
General Government $7.9 4%
Legislative, Judicial, and Executive $6.7 4%
Natural Resources $5.2 3%
Environmental Protection $3.2 2%
Business and Consumer Services $1.7 1%
Other $1.6 1%
Total $183.3 100%

Macroeconomic Fiscal PolicyEdit

Figure C - The Market for Capital (the Loanable Funds Market) and the Crowding Out Effect. An increase in government deficit spending "crowds out" private investment by increasing interest rates and lowering the quantity of capital available to the private sector.

Government spending can be a useful economic policy tool for governments. Fiscal policy can be defined as the use of government spending and/or taxation as a mechanism to influence an economy.[9][14] There are two types of fiscal policy: expansionary fiscal policy, and contractionary fiscal policy. Expansionary fiscal policy is an increase in government spending or a decrease in taxation, while contractionary fiscal policy is a decrease in government spending or an increase in taxes. Expansionary fiscal policy can be used by governments to stimulate the economy during a recession. For example, an increase in government spending directly increases demand for goods and services, which can help increase output and employment. On the other hand, contractionary fiscal policy can be used by governments to cool down the economy during an economic boom. A decrease in government spending can help keep inflation in check.[9] During economic downturns, in the short run, government spending can be changed either via automatic stabilization or discretionary stabilization. Automatic stabilization is when existing policies automatically change government spending or taxes in response to economic changes, without the additional passage of laws.[3][9] A primary example of an automatic stabilizer is unemployment insurance, which provides financial assistance to unemployed workers. Discretionary stabilization is when a government takes actions to change government spending or taxes in direct response to changes in the economy. For instance, a government may decide to increase government spending as a result of a recession.[3] With discretionary stabilization, the government must pass a new law to make changes in government spending.[9]

John Maynard Keynes was one of the first economists to advocate for government deficit spending as part of the fiscal policy response to an economic contraction. According to Keynesian economics, increased government spending raises aggregate demand and increases consumption, which leads to increased production and faster recovery from recessions. Classical economists, on the other hand, believe that increased government spending exacerbates an economic contraction by shifting resources from the private sector, which they consider productive, to the public sector, which they consider unproductive.[23]

In economics, the potential "shifting" in resources from the private sector to the public sector as a result of an increase in government deficit spending is called Crowding Out.[9] Figure C depicts the Market for Capital, otherwise known as the Market for Loanable Funds. The downward sloping demand curve D1 represents demand for private capital by firms and investors, and the upward sloping supply curve S1 represents savings by private individuals. The initial equilibrium in this market is represented by point A, where the equilibrium quantity of capital is K1 and the equilibrium interest rate is R1. If the government increases deficit spending, it will borrow money from the private capital market and reduce the supply of savings to S2. The new equilibrium is at point B, where the interest rate has increased to R2 and the quantity of capital available to the private sector has decreased to K1. The government has essentially made borrowing more expensive and has taken away savings from the market, which "crowds out" some private investment. The crowding out of private investment could limit the economic growth from the initial increase government spending.[3][14]

Current Use: Final Consumption ExpenditureEdit

Government acquisition of goods and services for current use to directly satisfy individual or collective needs of the members of the community is called government final consumption expenditure (GFCE.) It is a purchase from the national accounts "use of income account" for goods and services directly satisfying of individual needs (individual consumption) or collective needs of members of the community (collective consumption). GFCE consists of the value of the goods and services produced by the government itself other than own-account capital formation and sales and of purchases by the government of goods and services produced by market producers that are supplied to households – without any transformation – as "social transfers" in kind.[24]

National Defense SpendingEdit

United StatesEdit

Figure D - Historical Defense Spending, 1970-2019. Data from the United States Office of Management and Budget archives.

National defense spending is any government spending attributable to the maintenance and strengthening of the United States armed forces, including the Army, Navy, Marines, and the Air Force.[25] As of the fiscal year 2019 budget approved by congress, national defense is the second largest expenditure in the federal budget.[8] Figure D provides a historical picture of military spending over the last few decades. In 1970, the United States government spent just over $80 billion on national defense. Over the next two decades, national defense spending increased steadily to around $300 billion per year.[5] Military spending fell in the 1990s, but increased markedly in the 2000s as a result of the War in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military spending was cut slightly during the Obama Administration, but the Trump Administration plans to ramp up military spending to combat ISIS. National defense spending is expected to be $678 billion in 2019, an amount greater than the military expenditures of the next 9 countries combined.[26]

Key defense expenditures typically include:[27]

  • Power Projection: Spending on sea power and air power, including nuclear submarines, aircraft, and aircraft carriers.
  • Munitions: Maintenance of existing ammunition inventory, as well as procurement of new ammunition.
  • Nuclear Deterrence: Maintaining and expanding all nuclear systems.
  • Overseas Contingency Operations: Funds available for unexpected warfare abroad. For example, these funds were used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Missile Defense: Improvements in missile defense technology and integration of current technology at home and abroad.
  • Space Systems and Cyberspace Operations: Communication control and radar technology.

Other Countries:Edit

The United States spends vastly more than other countries on national defense. Table 2 below shows the top 10 countries with largest military expenditures as of 2015, the most recent year with publicly available data.[28] As the table suggests, the United States spent nearly 3 times as much on the military than China, the country with the next largest military spending. The U.S. military budget dwarfed spending by all other countries in the top 10, with 8 out of countries spending less than $100 billion in 2015.

Table 2. Top 10 Countries with the Largest Military Spending
Rank Country Military Spending in 2015 ($ Billions)
1   United States $596
2   China $215
3   Saudi Arabia $87
4   Russia $66
5   United Kingdom $55
6   India $51
7   France $51
8   Japan $41
9   Germany $39
10   South Korea $36

Infrastructure and investment: gross fixed capital formationEdit

Government acquisition intended to create future benefits, such as infrastructure investment or research spending, is called gross fixed capital formation, or government investment, which usually is the largest part of the government.[29] Acquisition of goods and services is made through production by the government (using the government's labour force, fixed assets and purchased goods and services for intermediate consumption) or through purchases of goods and services from market producers. In economic theory or in macroeconomics, investment is the amount purchased per unit of time of goods which are not consumed but are to be used for future production (i.e. capital). Examples include railroad or factory construction.

Infrastructure spending is considered government investment because it will usually save money in the long run, and thereby reduce the net present value of government liabilities.

Spending on physical infrastructure in the U.S. returns an average of about $1.92 for each $1.00 spent on nonresidential construction because it is almost always less expensive to maintain than repair or replace once it has become unusable.[30]

Likewise, government spending on social infrastructure, such as preventative health care, can save several hundreds of billions of dollars per year in the U.S., because for example cancer patients are more likely to be diagnosed at Stage I where curative treatment is typically a few outpatient visits, instead of at Stage III or later in an emergency room where treatment can involve years of hospitalization and is often terminal.[31]

Transfer Payment SpendingEdit

Government expenditures that are not acquisition of goods and services, and which represent transfers of money such as social security payments, are called transfer payments. These payments are considered to be exhaustive[jargon] because they do not directly absorb resources or create output. In other words, transfers are made without an exchange of goods or services.[32] Examples of certain transfer payments include welfare (financial aid), social security, and government giving subsidies to certain businesses (firms).

Government Spending Per CountryEdit

Per CapitaEdit

In 2010 national governments spent an average of $2,376 per person, while the average for the world's 20 largest economies (in terms of GDP) was $16,110 per person. Norway and Sweden expended the most at $40,908 and $26,760 per capita respectively. The federal government of the United States spent $11,041 per person. Other large economy country spending figures include South Korea ($4,557), Brazil ($2,813), Russia ($2,458), China ($1,010), and India ($226).[33] The figures below of 42% of GDP spending and a GDP per capita of $54,629 for the U.S. indicate a total per person spending including national, state, and local governments was $22,726 in the U.S.

As a Percentage of GDPEdit

Figure E - Public spending / GDP in Europe.
Legend: maroon > 55%, red 50–55%, orange 45–50%, yellow 40–45%, green 35–40%, blue 30–35%
Figure G - Tax Burden as a Percentage of GDP (2014 Index of Economic Freedom).[34]

This is a list of countries by government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) for the listed countries, according to the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom[34] by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. Tax revenue is included for comparison.

Table 3. List of Countries as a % of GDP.
Country Tax burden % GDP Govt. expend. % GDP
  Afghanistan 9 23
  Albania 23 28
  Algeria 10 40
  Angola 6 39
  Argentina 35 41
  Armenia 17 25
  Australia 26 35
  Austria 42 51
  Azerbaijan 13 34
  Bahamas 16 23
  Bahrain 3 31
  Bangladesh 10 16
  Barbados 27 41
  Belarus 25 36
  Belgium 44 53
  Belize 23 29
  Benin 16 22
  Bhutan 14 38
  Bolivia 22 35
  Bosnia and Herzegovina 39 49
  Botswana 28 32
  Brazil 35 39
  Bulgaria 26 34
  Burkina Faso 14 24
  Burma 4 19
  Burundi 14 40
  Cambodia 11 20
  Cameroon 11 22
  Canada 31 42
  Cape Verde 20 32
  Central African Republic 9 16
  Chad 5 26
  Chile 19 23
  China 19 24
  Colombia 15 29
  Comoros 12 22
  Democratic Republic of the Congo 24 29
  Congo 8 26
  Costa Rica 22 18
  Ivory Coast 13 26
  Croatia 33 43
  Cuba 24 67
  Cyprus 27 46
  Czech Republic 35 43
  Denmark 48 58
  Djibouti 20 35
  Dominica 24 36
  Dominican Republic 13 16
  Ecuador 18 44
  Egypt 14 32
  El Salvador 15 22
  Equatorial Guinea 2 35
  Eritrea 50 34
  Estonia 33 38
  Ethiopia 11 18
  Fiji 23 28
  Finland 43 55
  France 44 56
  Gabon 10 25
  Gambia 13 26
  Georgia 25 32
  Germany 37 45
  Ghana 15 24
  Greece 31 52
  Guatemala 11 15
  Guinea 16 22
  Guinea-Bissau 9 21
  Guyana 21 31
  Haiti 13 34
  Honduras 16 26
  Hong Kong 14 19
  Hungary 36 49
  Iceland 36 47
  India 7 27
  Indonesia 12 19
  Iran 9 22
  Iraq 2 45
  Ireland 28 48
  Israel 33 45
  Italy 43 50
  Jamaica 23 32
  Japan 28 42
  Jordan 14 33
  Kazakhstan 15 22
  Kenya 20 29
  Kiribati 20 92
  North Korea N/A N/A
  South Korea 26 30
  Kuwait 1 39
  Kyrgyzstan 19 36
  Laos 14 21
  Latvia 27 39
  Lebanon 17 30
  Lesotho 38 63
  Liberia 20 31
  Libya 1 67
  Liechtenstein N/A N/A
  Lithuania 16 38
  Luxembourg 37 42
  Macau 35 17
  Macedonia 26 31
  Madagascar 11 16
  Malawi 20 35
  Malaysia 15 29
  Maldives 16 43
  Mali 14 25
  Malta 34 42
  Mauritania 18 28
  Mauritius 18 25
  Mexico 11 27
  F.S. Micronesia 12 65
  Moldova 31 39
  Mongolia 33 45
  Montenegro 24 44
  Morocco 23 35
  Mozambique 20 34
  Namibia 28 37
    Nepal 13 19
  Netherlands 39 50
  New Zealand 32 48
  Nicaragua 18 26
  Niger 14 20
  Nigeria 5 29
  Norway 43 44
  Oman 2 38
  Pakistan 9 20
  Panama 18 27
  Papua New Guinea 26 29
  Paraguay 13 19
  Peru 17 19
  Philippines 12 16
  Poland 32 44
  Portugal 31 49
  Qatar 3 31
  Romania 28 37
  Russia 30 36
  Rwanda 13 27
  Saint Lucia 25 35
  Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 22 30
  Samoa 23 44
  São Tomé and Príncipe 17 49
  Saudi Arabia 4 35
  Senegal 19 29
  Serbia 35 45
  Seychelles 32 36
  Sierra Leone 12 22
  Singapore 14 17
  Slovakia 29 38
  Slovenia 37 51
  Solomon Islands 37 51
  South Africa 27 32
  Spain 32 45
  Sri Lanka 12 21
  Sudan 7 18
  Suriname 19 27
  Swaziland 23 31
  Sweden 45 51
   Switzerland 29 34
  Syria 10 N/A
  Taiwan 9 23
  Tajikistan 20 27
  Tanzania 15 27
  Thailand 16 23
  Timor-Leste 61.5 51.2
  Togo 17 24
  Tonga 18 29
  Trinidad and Tobago 17 35
  Tunisia 21 35
  Turkey 25 35
  Turkmenistan 18 15
  Uganda 17 21
  Ukraine 38 46
  United Arab Emirates 6 24
  United Kingdom 36 49
  United States 33[35] 36[36]
  Uruguay 27 33
  Uzbekistan 20 31
  Vanuatu 16 25
  Venezuela 13 40
  Vietnam 21 31
  Yemen 5 29
  Zambia 19 24
  Zimbabwe 30 35
  Somalia N/A N/A
  Brunei 24 34
Figure F - Government Expenditure as a Percentage of GDP (2014 Index of Economic Freedom).[34]

Public Social Spending by CountryEdit

Public social spending comprises cash benefits, direct in-kind provision of goods and services, and tax breaks with social purposes provided by general government (that is central, state, and local governments, including social security funds).[37]

Table 4. 2015 Public social spending, OECD[37]
Country Public social spending
% of GDP
  France 31.7
  Finland 30.6
  Belgium 29.2
  Italy 28.9
  Denmark 28.8
  Austria 28.0
  Sweden 26.7
  Greece 26.4
  Spain 25.4
  Germany 25.0
  Portugal 24.1
  Norway 23.9
  Slovenia 22.4
  Netherlands 22.3
  Luxembourg 22.2
  Great Britain 21.5
OECD 21.0
  Hungary 20.7
  New Zealand 19.7
   Switzerland 19.6
  Czech Republic 19.5
  Poland 19.4
  Slovakia 19.4
  United States 19.0
  Australia 18.8
  Canada 17.2
  Estonia 17.0
  Ireland 17.0
  Israel 16.0
  Iceland 15.7
  Latvia 14.4
  Chile 11.2
  South Korea 10.1


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External linksEdit