Thursday, May 24, 2012

Last Year's Deficit

The big difference between the official deficit and standard accounting: Congress exempts itself from including the cost of promised retirement benefits. Yet companies, states and local governments must include retirement commitments in financial statements, as required by federal law and private boards that set accounting rules.

The deficit was $5 trillion last year under those rules. The official number was $1.3 trillion. Liabilities for Social Security, Medicare and other retirement programs rose by $3.7 trillion in 2011, according to government actuaries, but the amount was not registered on the government's books.

Contrasting deficits

The federal government calculates the deficit in a way that makes the number smaller than if standard accounting rules were followed (in trillions).

Sources: USA TODAY research; Congressional Budget Office

Deficits are a major issue in this year's presidential campaign, but USA TODAY has calculated federal finances under accounting rules since 2004 and found no correlation between fluctuations in the deficit and which party ran Congress or the White House.
Key findings:

•Social Security had the biggest financial slide. The government would need $22.2 trillion today, set aside and earning interest, to cover benefits promised to current workers and retirees beyond what taxes will cover. That's $9.5 trillion more than was needed in 2004.

•Deficits from 2004 to 2011 would be six times the official total of $5.6 trillion reported.


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