Social Security/Medicare: $9,949. The 15.3 percent payroll tax, split evenly between the employer and employee, covers most of these costs. This system can remain sustainable only if there are enough workers to support all retirees, which is why it risks collapsing under the weight of 77 million retiring baby boomers. Unless these programs are reformed, paying all promised benefits would eventually require doubling all income tax rates.
Defense: $6,071. The defense budget covers everything from military paychecks to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to the research, development and acquisition of new technologies and equipment. Lawmakers drastically reduced military spending after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. The 9/11 attacks reversed this trend, and the inflation-adjusted $2,472 per household increase since 2000 has returned military spending closer to its historical levels (but still lower than during previous wars).
Antipoverty programs: $5,466. Nearly half of this spending subsidizes state Medicaid programs that provide health services to poor families. Other low-income spending includes: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, housing subsidies, child-care subsidies, Supplemental Security Income and low-income tax credits. President George W. Bush increased antipoverty spending to record levels, and it has grown an additional 32 percent since the end of 2008 under President Barack Obama.
Unemployment benefits: $1,640. Unemployment costs have surged by 411 percent during the recession.
Interest on the federal debt: $1,585. The federal government is $13 trillion in debt. It owes $9 trillion to public bond owners, and the rest to other federal agencies (mostly to repay the Social Security trust fund, which lawmakers raided annually before the program went into deficit in 2010). Record-low interest rates have recently held down these costs. However, the national debt is set to double by 2020, which will combine with higher interest rates to raise annual interest costs to nearly $6,000 per household.
Veterans' benefits: $1,052. The federal government provides income and health benefits to war veterans. Spending is up 83 percent since 2000.
Federal employee retirement benefits: $1,018. This spending funds the retirement and disability benefits of federal employees, including the military.
Education: $914. Education spending is primarily a state and local function; 9 percent of the total comes from Washington. The federal education budget has leaped 125 percent since 2000. Most federal dollars are spent on low-income school districts, special education and college student financial aid.
Highways/mass transit: $613. Most highway and mass-transit spending is financed by the 18.4 cent per-gallon federal gas tax. Washington subtracts an administrative cost and sends this money back to the states with numerous strings attached.
Health research/regulation: $550. This spending is up 50 percent since 2001, and much of this growth is concentrated in the National Institutes of Health. The category also includes the Food and Drug Administration and dozens of grant programs for health providers.
Mortgage Credit: $470. While most of the bank bailouts occurred last year, the bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the rest of the housing market continue.
The programs listed above cover $29,328 per household. The remaining $2,078 is allocated to all other federal programs, including justice, international affairs, natural resources, the environment, regional development, farm subsidies, social services, space exploration, air transportation and energy.
Taxpayers — and the next generation that will be paying nearly half of the bill — must decide for themselves if they're getting their money's worth.
Brian Riedl is the Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
© 2010 The Heritage Foundation. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services