The Most Expensive Government Program (Updated)

What’s the most expensive government program in the United States? What do we spend the most on? The following are based on 2002-2003, the latest for which I could readily find statistics.

I suspect that lots of people would say the military but, no, that’s a measly $335.7 billion. Enough that we spend more than any other country in the world by a substantial margin but not enough for it to be our largest expense.

Social Security, then? Close, but no cigar. In 2002-2003, that was $438.11 billion.

No, the champeen, the Big Kahuna was public education. All told, all sources we spent more than $480 billion on public education.

I think it’s quite reasonable to argue about priorities, about how (or whether) we should be spending our money. But I read so many idiotic comments (on other blogs, of course) from people who don’t know the facts it sometimes makes me despair for the Republic.

BTW, we’re also spending more than three times in inflation adjusted dollars what we spent on public education 40 years ago. Are we getting three times as much?


I found the figures for 2003! From state and federal sources total spending on primary and secondary public education was roughly $470 billion. Social Security and education are neck and neck!

7 comments… add one
  • One thing to consider in your calculations: the population of the United States was about 180 million in 1960. It’s 300 million now. All things being equal, we’d be spending 67% more anyway just because of population growth.

  • Actually, Sean, I understated how much the spending on public education has increased. Spending is now more than three times in inflation-adjust dollars per student what it was back in 1960.

    BTW although I’m not a product of the public education system I’m not an opponent of it, either. I think we’d be in a helluva mess without it. But I really think it needs a major overhaul. Fine tuning won’t cut it. And we can’t solve the problems with our public education system by throwing federal money at it.

    Even if our fiscal situation allowed it the public education system can absorb whatever federal money we’d want to stoke it with and ask for more.

  • Dave, I’ve know the gist of these facts for many years now. It’s why I tune out anyone whose starting premise about the problem of Education in the USA is lack of money. Incidentally, any idea at which point in time the bulk of the nation’s teachers started coming directly from Colleges of Education as opposed to all other sources?

  • To the best of my knowledge it’s always been that way, Icepick. My mom graduated from a teacher’s college back in the late 1930’s. Those were the main source of teachers and the effective equivalent of Ed. schools.

    I think a better question is when did Ed. schools become pass-throughs. Again to the best of my knowledge it’s been a sort of continuous process. I know that back in the 70’s California waived education requirements for people seeking teachers’ credentials with interest studies majors i.e. African American Studies, Latino Studies, etc. Never sounded pedagogically sound to me.

  • Hmm, that’s suggestive of another problem. Perhaps more highly accomplished individuals (meaning women) became a smaller percentage of the overall teaching force as other, more lucrative opportunities opened up for them as a class. One should be able to see a downward trend from WWII on if that’s the case.

    (I’m suspicious of long-term data comparisons here, though. SAT scores dropped for decades, but it wasn’t necessarily a sign of overall dminished capacity from the students. As more and more Americans went to college, a greater percentage of students took the test. So instead of the sample being a small elite cadre of students, the sample became much larger. That would skew the numbers. Presumably someone has tried to correct for that, but whenever I’ve started reading studies of the studies, it seems that an awful lot of the education studies have methodological flaws.)

  • Larry

    Your milatary budget does not take into count the cost of our current war which is in excess of your quote, Greenspan said in an interview not long ago that the military budget, to include the current spending on the war is only about 4% of the total U.S budget.

    Education is something I am willing pay taxes for.. and not just for my own personal interest but the nations as a whole, small price to pay in the scheme of things, once you consider the dollars we get back as a nation from the investment in educating our people. The biggest problem with education is the regulations used against it…considering all that education has to do and under the strings by so many special interest groups…it’s doing a pretty good job with what it has.

    Social Security, this is also something I pay into and would happily pay a bit more to keep it going. Again Social Security might not be in such a messed up state if the special interest groups would keep their fingers out of the til, to include those who would like to see it invested in wall-street…oh that would make a few more rich people even richer…why not just toss us out on the street when we are no longer earning a profit..

    What is the total national annual income now and what was it in the 60’s?…what is our economy worth now many trillions of dollars is it worth now as compared to that of the 1960’s?

    I can remember listening to a talk radio show coming from Boston in the early 70’s…the topic was about how many people were making 50k a year…not many…at that time, and if were making 50k a year you were doing extremely well. I was making $2.10 and hour then, I fed three people, had a car, a good home…it sure would have been nice to make that $24-25 an hour back then…it’s all realitive I guess..

  • Yeah, its very frustrating when people cite federal spending only and use that as the claim that we don’t spend enough on schools. Most of the educators I speak to say that federal standards don’t match federal funding, and the good intentions from Washington end up costing the schools a lot of money. Maybe we could do away with the Department of Education after all?

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