US runs a 4th straight $1 trillion-plus budget gap

Associated Press Modified: October 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm •  Published: October 12, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has now spent $1 trillion more than it's taken in for four straight years.

The Treasury Department confirmed Friday what was widely expected: The deficit for the just-ended 2012 budget year — the gap between the government's tax revenue and its spending — totaled $1.1 trillion. Put simply, that's how much the government had to borrow.

It wasn't quite as ugly as last year.

Tax revenue rose 6.4 percent from 2011 to $2.45 trillion. And spending fell 1.7 percent to $3.5 trillion. As a result, the deficit shrank 16 percent, or $207 billion.

A stronger economy meant more people had jobs and income that generated tax revenue. Corporations also contributed more to federal revenue than in 2011.

The government spent less on Medicaid and on defense as U.S. military involvement in Iraq was winding down.

Barack Obama's presidency has coincided with four straight $1 trillion-plus annual budget deficits — the first in history and an issue in an election campaign that ends in 3½ weeks.

When Obama took office in January 2009, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that the deficit that year would total $1.2 trillion. It ended up at a record $1.41 trillion.

The increase was due in large part to the worst recession since the Great Depression. Tax revenue plummeted, and the government spent more on stimulus programs.

Tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush and military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to the deficits.

"There is nothing like the number trillion to focus the mind," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates budget discipline. "The fiscal situation is terrible. Changes will have to be made as quickly and carefully as possible."

Here's a closer look at the nation's deficit and its debt, which represents the accumulation of annual deficits:

— ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM

The 2012 budget gap signals a slight recovery from the deficit explosion that hit in late 2008. That's when the financial crisis erupted and the recession that began in December 2007 was tightening its grip.

The sinking U.S. economy caused tax revenue to plummet. And federal spending surged. The money went to provide laid-off workers with unemployment insurance and food stamps. The government also spent more to provide economic stimulus programs and to stabilize the financial system.

Before it escalated, the deficit had been as low as $161 billion in 2007. By 2009, it had peaked at $1.4 trillion. Since then, the improvement has been slight but steady. Tax revenue is still less than in 2007.

— THE OUTLOOK

The aging of the vast baby boom generation is raising government spending on Social Security and on Medicare and Medicaid.

A still-weak economy, along with tax cuts, have meanwhile reduced government revenue. Over the past three years, revenue has fallen below 16 percent of gross domestic product — the value of all goods and services produced in the United States. It's the lowest such percentage since 1950. That isn't enough to sustain spending, which has been exceeding 22 percent of GDP.

And so the government has borrowed to make up the gap. And debt piles up, year after year. It's reached $11.3 trillion — $16.2 trillion if you include money the government has borrowed from itself, mostly revenue from Social Security.

Unless something changes, the Congressional Budget Office warns, the federal debt would reach a level that is "unsustainable from both a budgetary and an economic perspective."

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