Thursday, June 23, 2011

CBO's 2011 Long-Term Budget Outlook

Abstract

This Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report presents the agency's projections of federal spending and revenues over the coming decades. Under current law, an aging population and rapidly rising health care costs will sharply increase federal spending for health care programs and Social Security. If revenues remained at their historical average share of gross domestic product (GDP), such spending growth would cause federal debt to grow to unsustainable levels. If policymakers are to put the federal government on a sustainable budgetary path, they will need to increase revenues substantially as a percentage of GDP, decrease spending significantly from projected levels, or adopt some combination of those two approaches. In keeping with CBO's mandate to provide objective, impartial analysis, this report makes no recommendations.

Summary

Text-only. The full version of the summary may include tables, charts, and footnotes.

Recently, the federal government has been recording budget deficits that are the largest as a share of the economy since 1945. Consequently, the amount of federal debt held by the public has surged. At the end of 2008, that debt equaled 40 percent of the nation's annual economic output (a little above the 40-year average of 37 percent). Since then, the figure has shot upward: By the end of this year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects, federal debt will reach roughly 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—the highest percentage since shortly after World War II. The sharp rise in debt stems partly from lower tax revenues and higher federal spending related to the recent severe recession. However, the growing debt also reflects an imbalance between spending and revenues that predated the recession.

As the economy continues to recover and the policies adopted to counteract the recession phase out, budget deficits will probably decline markedly in the next few years. But the budget outlook, for both the coming decade and beyond, is daunting. The retirement of the baby-boom generation portends a significant and sustained increase in the share of the population receiving benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Moreover, per capita spending for health care is likely to continue rising faster than spending per person on other goods and services for many years (although the magnitude of that gap is very uncertain). Without significant changes in government policy, those factors will boost federal outlays sharply relative to GDP in coming decades under any plausible assumptions about future trends in the economy, demographics, and health care costs.

According to CBO's projections, if current laws remained in place, spending on the major mandatory health care programs alone would grow from less than 6 percent of GDP today to about 9 percent in 2035 and would continue to increase thereafter. Spending on Social Security is projected to rise much less sharply, from less than 5 percent of GDP today to about 6 percent in 2030, and then to stabilize at roughly that level. Altogether, the aging of the population and the rising cost of health care would cause spending on the major mandatory health care programs and Social Security to grow from roughly 10 percent of GDP today to about 15 percent of GDP 25 years from now. (By comparison, spending on all of the federal government's programs and activities, excluding interest payments on debt, has averaged about 18.5 percent of GDP over the past 40 years.) That combined increase of roughly 5 percentage points for such spending as a share of the economy is equivalent to about $750 billion today. If lawmakers ultimately modified some provisions of current law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period, that increase would be even larger.

Long-Term Scenarios

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