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Taxpayers' bill leaps by trillions
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
The federal government's long-term financial obligations grew by $2.5 trillion last year, a reflection of the mushrooming cost of Medicare and Social Security benefits as more baby boomers reach retirement.
That's double the red ink of a year earlier.
Taxpayers are on the hook for a record $57.3 trillion in federal liabilities to cover the lifetime benefits of everyone eligible for Medicare, Social Security and other government programs, a USA TODAY analysis found. That's nearly $500,000 per household.
When obligations of state and local governments are added, the total rises to $61.7 trillion, or $531,472 per household. That is more than four times what Americans owe in personal debt such as mortgages.
The $2.5 trillion in federal liabilities dwarfs the $162 billion the government officially announced as last year's deficit, down from $248 billion a year earlier.
"We're running deficits in the trillions of dollars, not the hundreds of billions of dollars we're being told," says Sheila Weinberg, chief executive of the Institute for Truth in Accounting of Chicago.
The reason for the discrepancy: Accounting standards require corporations and state governments to count new financial obligations, even if the payments will be made later. The federal government doesn't follow that rule. Instead of counting lifetime benefits for programs such as Social Security, the government counts the cost of benefits for the current year.
The deteriorating condition of these programs doesn't show up in the government's bottom line, but the information is released elsewhere in Medicare's annual report, for example. Since 2004, USA TODAY has collected the information to provide taxpayers with a financial report similar to what a corporation would give shareholders. Big new liabilities taken on in 2007:
Medicare: $1.2 trillion.
Social Security: $900 billion.
Civil servant retirement: $106 billion.
Veteran benefits: $34 billion.
The multitrillion-dollar loss is a more meaningful financial number than the official deficit, says Tom Allen, chairman of the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board, which helps set federal accounting rules.
Medicare has an unfunded liability of $30.4 trillion.
That means, in addition to paying all future Medicare taxes, the government needs $30.4 trillion set aside in an interest-earning account to pay benefits promised to existing taxpayers and beneficiaries. The amount is sure to rise when the oldest of 79 million baby boomers 62 this year reach 65 and become eligible.
Economist Dean Baker says the huge liabilities are potentially misleading because future generations will have greater income. "If we fix health care, then our deficits can be easily dealt with," he says.
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