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US Pensions Spending History from 1900

In 1902 governments in the United States spent nothing on pensions programs. In the early 21st century, governments spend over 6.5 percent of GDP on pensions programs.

A Century of Pensions Spending

Pensions spending by governments increased rapidly during the second half of the 20th century.

Chart 2.71: Pensions Spending in 20th Century

Government pensions spending, including both pensions for government employees and government pensions for workers, like Social Security, started out at the beginning of the 20th century at zero percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It increased very slowly during the first half of the century. It was only in 1931 that government pension expenditure reached 0.12 percent of GDP. By the beginning of World War II pension expenditure had doubled — all the way to 0.22 percent of GDP.

After World War II pension expenditures, now including Social Security payouts, began to accelerate, reaching 1 percent of GDP by 1953 and doubling to 2 percent of GDP by 1958. Pension expenditure reached 3 percent of GDP by 1971 and 4 percent by 1974. Pension expenditure breached 5 percent of GDP in 1980.

The ramp-up in pensions expenditure began to moderate after 1980, reaching 5.1 percent of GDP in 1990 and 5.3 percent in 2000. Pension spending breached 6 percent of GDP in the recession year of 2009, hitting 6.39 percent of GDP in that year. Pensions expenditure is estimated to be 6.8 percent of GDP in 2015, and is expected to breach 7 percent GDP by 2020.

Government Pensions Before Social Security

Government spent modest amounts on pensions in the first half of the 20th Century.

Chart 2.72: Pensions Spending Before Social Security

At the start of the 20th century governments spent nothing on civil pensions. This began to change right before World War I as local governments began to implement pensions programs for their employees.

Chart Key:
- Local pensions
- State pensions
- Federal pensions

After World War I the federal government and state governments started to show expenditures on pension programs for their employees. The total cost of these programs had reached 0.1 percent of GDP by 1930.

Pensions spending surged in the during the Great Depression with federal spending reaching 0.08 percent of GDP, state pension spending reaching 0.05 percent of GDP and local government pension spending reaching 0.08 percent of GDP by 1940.

Government Pensions in the Social Security Age

Social Security dominates pension spending in the United States.

Chart 2.73: Pensions Spending in Social Security Age

Since the passage of Social Security in 1935 the program has come to dominate government pension spending. Starting at 0.08 percent of GDP in 1940 federal pension spending reached 1.15 percent of GDP in 1955 and 2.15 percent of GDP in 1960. In the early 1960s federal pension spending stabilized before resuming its growth in the late 1960s, breaching 3 percent of GDP in 1972.

Chart Key:
- Local spending
- State spending
- Federal spending

The main ramp-up in Social Security spending occurred between 1965 and 1982, when federal pension spending rose from 2 percent of GDP to 5 percent. In the years after 1980 Social Security spending went into a modest decline, bottoming out at 4.2 percent of GDP in 2006. But the Great Recession and the retirement of the post-World War II baby boom has reversed that, and federal pension spending is expected to reach 5.3 percent of GDP by 2015.

In the post-World World War II era, as Social Security spending was ramping up, the pace of state and local pension spending remained fairly modest. But by 1991 state pension spending reached 0.5 percent of GDP and local pension spending hovered at 0.16 percent of GDP.

By 2010 state pension spending had more than doubled to 1.15 percent of GDP and local pension spending has nearly doubled to 0.25 percent of GDP. In 2015 state pension spending is expected to be 1.25 percent GDP and local pension spending is expected to be 0.28 percent GDP.

Government Employee Pensions Since World War II

Government employee pension payouts have increased to over 2 percent of GDP

Chart 2.74: Government Employee Pensions

In 1950 the total payout on government employee pensions was 0.21 percent of GDP: federal at 0.09 percent, state at 0.05 percent, and local 0.09 percent of GDP. Then they started to grow.

Chart Key:
- Local employees
- State employees
- Federal employees

For three decades federal pension payouts dominated. Federal pensions reached 0.5 percent GDP in 1970 and peaked at 1.03 percent of GDP in 1982, declining thereafter to 0.71 percent of GDP in 2005. Since the mid 2000s federal pensions have increased, hitting 0.8 percent GDP in 2009, before declining to an estimated 0.77 percent GDP in 2015 and an expected 0.71 percent GDP in 2020.

In recent years, state government pensions have dominated. State pension payouts reached 0.11 percent of GDP in 1954, 0.2 percent GDP in 1969, and 0.4 percent GDP in the mid 1980s. Then state pensions started to accelerate, hitting 0.52 percent GDP in 1991 and doubling to 1.01 percent GDP in 2008. State pension payouts are expected to increase to 1.25 percent GDP by 2015.

The increase in local government employee pension payouts has been modest. This is because most local government employees participate in their state employee pension plan. Local pension payouts were about 0.1 percent GDP in the late 1950s and increased to 0.15 percent GDP by 1987. Local pensions reached 0.2 percent GDP in 2002 and 0.26 percent GDP in 2011.

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Spending Data Sources

Spending data is from official government sources.

Gross Domestic Product data comes from US Bureau of Economic Analysis and

Detailed table of spending data sources here.

Federal spending data begins in 1792.

State and local spending data begins in 1890.

State and local spending data for individual states begins in 1957.

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Data Source

Source: CBO Long-Term Budget Outlook .

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State FY15 Tax Update

On September 27, 2015 updated FY2015 state revenue with quarterly tax data from the US Census Bureau.  Local tax data was updated by assuming that local taxes for 2015 changed by the same percent as state taxes of the same type.

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