What is the government’s primary function? If you look at the debates that rage each year when the president’s budget comes out, you’d think it was defense spending. Or food stamps. Or cancer research. Or student loans.
Any proposed changes to these programs make headlines. Just as President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget did. It would, we were told, “slash domestic spending,” “cut science and medical research,” and “eliminate funding for arts,” while boosting defense spending.
But if you look beyond the headlines at the actual budget document, you learn that those are all squabbles over crumbs. Today, the one thing the federal government does above all else is write checks to individuals. Lots of checks. Nearly $3.2 trillion worth of checks. Each and every year.
Buried in a separate volume of the annual budget are “Historical Tables,” which provide rich detail on how the government has spent taxpayers’ money going back as far as 1789. Three of these tables track “payment for individuals,” defined as “federal government spending programs designed to transfer income (in cash or in kind) to individuals or families.”