Federal Budget in Pictures

About the Federal Budget in Pictures

The Congressional Budget Office shows very clearly something we’ve known for a long time: Higher spending is driving deficits and debt to unsupportable heights. The public debt is already at $41,000 for every American; a child born in 2015 will be faced with a $142,000 share of the debt by the time he or she leaves college.

U.S. public debt has doubled since before the Great Recession, reaching levels not seen since shortly after World War II. Why does the debt matter? Extensive research shows that excessive debt harms job growth and ultimately lowers Americans’ personal incomes. Unless America changes course soon, younger and future generations will inherit a massive national debt and a less prosperous nation.

It is critical that Americans understand what the nation’s spending, debt, and taxes mean for them and their families--as well as what solutions can point the way forward. The Heritage Foundation’s Federal Budget in Pictures offers a unique tool to learn about these vital issues in a clear, compelling way.

The federal government has borrowed to finance much of the spending growth over the past two decades. Yet when the Government Accountability Office and others independently evaluate government programs, the reports too often show spending being wasted on duplicative and ineffective government programs. Moreover, the federal government has become bloated, intruding in areas better handled by the private sector and state and local governments.

Dealing with government waste, fraud, and inappropriate spending is crucial--one key element of budget reform. This includes eliminating programs that favor well-connected individuals and groups at the cost of the general public.

Another essential aspect of reform is readily evident simply from looking at the budget: Medicare, Medicaid, and other health care programs, together with Social Security, make up 51 percent of the federal budget. Millions of Americans rely on these outdated, unsustainable programs that were designed decades ago. Congress has yet to take the steps needed to reform these programs to benefit those most in need, while being affordable for taxpayers.

The 2015 Federal Budget in Pictures helps Americans understand the severity of the nation’s current fiscal situation. Lawmakers must make tough choices to cut government spending, just as American households have trimmed back their own unnecessary spending in recent years. We can change the nation’s current course, support a budget based on real constitutional priorities, and unshackle the enormous power of free people to create jobs, wealth, and prosperity.


  • Romina Boccia

    Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs

  • Michael Sargent

    Research Assistant in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

  • John Fleming

    Senior Data Graphics Editor

Technical Notes

The charts in this publication are based primarily on data available from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as of February 2015 and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as of July 2014. The charts using OMB data display the historical growth of federal spending, revenue, and debt to 2015, while the charts using CBO data show projected growth to as far as 2089. Projections based on OMB data are taken from the President’s budget for fiscal year 2016.

The charts show annual data. Debt limit data are based on the limit in effect at the end of the calendar year. All spending and revenue data are based on the federal fiscal year. Prior to 1976, the fiscal year was from July 1 to June 30. That year, the current format of October 1 to September 30 was implemented. In the charts, the transition period is omitted for simplicity. Inflation adjustments are calculated using the deflators from OMB Historical Table 10.1: “GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT AND DEFLATORS USED IN THE HISTORICAL TABLES: 1940–2019.” Historical averages for spending and revenues in this publication span from 1952 to 2008, encompassing post–World War II and pre–Great Recession years unless otherwise indicated.