Two years after World War I ended—in fiscal year 1920—the federal government spent approximately $6,358,000,000, according to Historical Table 1.1 published by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
At the same time, the government collected approximately $6,649,000,000 in taxes—and ran a surplus of $291,000,000.
When that federal spending of $6,358,000,000 is adjusted for inflation from June 1920 dollars (the last month of that fiscal year) to June 2021 dollars (the latest month that can be calculated using the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator), it becomes $82,652,780,000.
A hundred years ago, the 1920 census discovered that the United States had a population of 106,021,537. That means the $82,652,780,000 that the federal government spent in fiscal 1920—when Woodrow Wilson was president—equaled $779.58 per person in the country (in June 2021 dollars).
Then, in 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.
In 1930, when Herbert Hoover was president, the federal government spent a total of just $3,320,000,000, which equals $53,692,300,000 in June 2021 dollars. That means the federal government spent only $435.80 (in June 2021 dollars) per each of the 123,202,624 persons counted by the Census Bureau that year.
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. In FDR’s first two terms, federal spending more than doubled—rising from $4,598,000,000 in fiscal 1933 to $9,468,000,000 in fiscal 1940 (which ended almost a year and a half before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor).
The $9,468,000,000 that Roosevelt spent in 1940 equaled $182,440,970,000 in June 2021 dollars—and $1,380.41 per each of the 132,164,569 persons the census counted in the country that year.
Roosevelt was one of the most aggressive advocates of big government ever to serve in the presidency. With the Great Depression and World War II, his administration took on two of the greatest crises this nation ever has faced.
But the rise in per capita federal spending did not end with FDR—it accelerated.
In 1950, when Harry Truman was president, the federal government spent $42,562,000,000, which equals $485,879,210,000 in June 2021 dollars. According to that year’s census, the population was 151,325,798. So, the federal government spent $3,210.82 per capita (in June 2021 dollars).
In just 30 years, from Wilson’s administration to Truman’s, real per capita federal spending had more than quadrupled, rising from $779.58 to $3,210.82 (in constant June 2021 dollars).
But, even then, the increase in real per capita federal spending had just begun.
In 1960, when Dwight Eisenhower was serving his last year as president, the federal government spent $92,191,000,000—or $846,213,710,000 in June 2021 dollars. That equaled $4,718.93 for each of the 179,323,175 persons in the country that year.
In 1970, when Richard Nixon was in his second year as president, the federal government spent $195,649,000,000—or $1,370,027,080,000 in June 2021 dollars. That equaled $6,738.88 for each of the 203,302,031 persons then in the country.
In 1980, when Jimmy Carter was in his last year in office, the federal government spent $590,941,000,000 (in a fiscal year that now ends in September). That equaled $1,911,384,590,000 in June 2021 dollars—or $8,437.21 for each of the 226,542,199 persons in the country.
From Wilson through Carter, real per capita federal spending increased more than tenfold.
In 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president, the federal government spent $1,252,993,000,000, which equaled $2,565,434,710,000 in June 2021 dollars. That was $10,314.97 for each of the 248,709,873 persons in the country that year.
In 2000, when Bill Clinton was president and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, real per capita spending actually was down from what it had been a decade before. That year, the federal government spent $1,788,950,000,000 (or $2,798,218,530,000 in constant June 2021 dollars), which equaled $9,943.14 in June 2021 dollars for each of the 281,421,906 persons in the country.
In 2010, when Barack Obama was president and Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, per capita federal spending was rising again. That year, the federal government spent $3,457,079,000,000 (or $4,299,939,740,000 in June 2021 dollars), which equaled $13,927.13 for each of the 308,745,538 persons in the country.
In 2020, when Donald Trump was president and the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the federal government spent $6,550,396,000,000 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to the Office of Management and Budget (or $6,837,699,370,000 in June 2021 dollars).
That equaled $19,762.89 in unadjusted dollars and $20,629.70 in constant June 2021 dollars for each of the 331,449,281 persons in the United States.
It can be argued that the particularly large increase in per capita federal spending from 2010 to 2020 is a one-time anomaly primarily caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, in fiscal 2019, federal spending was $4,446,956,000,000 (or $4,705,658,450,000 in constant June 2021 dollars), which worked out to $14,336.05 for each of the 328,239,523 persons the Census Bureau estimated were in the U.S. that year.
But the $14,336.05 in real per capita federal spending in fiscal 2019 is still more than 18 times larger than the $779.58 per capita spending of 1920.
The latest analysis by the Congressional Budget Office of the economic outlook estimated that, “if current laws governing taxes and spending remained unchanged,” federal spending would hit $7,415,000,000,000 in fiscal 2030.
Given that the Census Bureau estimates the national population will be 355,101,000 in 2030, per capita federal spending would hit $20,881.38.
That’s without COVID-19 or any new spending programs from President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
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