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A letter to the country’s shareholders while the nation is at a crossroads
This past year has underscored the role government plays in the lives of Americans. The federal government put money and resources into making COVID-19 vaccines happen in record time. It sent thousands of relief payments to Americans in unprecedented spending packages. State and local governments implemented coronavirus restrictions that limited gatherings (or didn’t, depending on location). They also labored, particularly early in the pandemic, to gather medical gear and supplies. Whether you agree or disagree with the outcomes, whether you think government should play a greater or smaller role in the lives of Americans, it is clear government has an impact on society.
But measuring that impact has been difficult.
This is the fifth annual USAFacts Governments 10-K, the only central source to study the effects of the programs the government puts into place or cuts. Modeled on the form for assessing performance, financial condition, and risk factors that publicly traded US companies must annually submit to the Securities and Exchange Commission, this document helps Americans judge the state of the nation.
This 10-K combines data from more than 90,000 government entities. The state and local financial data here is three years old, primarily focusing on 2008 to 2018 so Americans can analyze the effects of the Great Recession — and just as the nation is starting to sort out the effects of the pandemic-driven recession.
This report includes a thorough accounting of where the nation was just before the pandemic and brings in some limited recent data to evaluate of its early outcomes. Here is some of what I found interesting:
Corporate income tax collections fell 31% from 2017 to 2018, but federal tax revenue held.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act changed the nation’s tax code when it went into effect on January 1, 2018. This legislation reduced the federal corporate income tax rate from 35% to 21%. Federal revenue from corporate income taxes — which made up 9% of all 2017 federal revenue — decreased 31% from 2017 to 2018.
Still, federal individual income tax revenue rose 6% in 2018. Most Americans, particularly those making $200,000 or more, had a higher adjusted gross income that year and had more to tax albeit at a lower rate. Over half of the growth in income was from increased wages, followed by capital gains and retirement income. In total, federal tax revenues rose 1% between 2017 to 2018, lower than the 2.4% rate of inflation that year.
These are 2018 numbers, but they’re the first the nation has seen on tax revenue after implementing key components of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. They’ll be important to keep in mind as the government pays for coronavirus recovery spending and considers spending packages in the trillions and billions, like President Biden’s infrastructure plan and the Congressional Republican’s counter plan. The president has stated that he intends to pay for the plan by raising corporate tax rates, but the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is currently the law of the land. No matter what happens, Americans need the data to measure the decision and its outcome.
The number of Americans receiving government food assistance grew by 12% in 2020.
More Americans are receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits during the pandemic than in the years just before. The average number of monthly recipients rose by nearly 4.2 million to 39.9 million over 2020. In March 2020, the USDA announced new emergency benefits allowing more households to receive the maximum monthly allowance. That average monthly benefit per person rose 18% from $130 in 2019 to $153 in 2020 as a result.
This, however, was not the highest number of recipients in recent years: 47.6 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2013, partly due to expanded eligibility following the Great Recession.
There are more subsidized housing units, but people are waiting longer for them.
The number of government-subsidized housing units grew by 0.8% in 2020 to reach almost 5.1 million units, but it’s getting harder to get into affordable housing. Americans spend an average of 27 months on the wait list, up an additional nine months from the decade prior. And people are staying longer when they get into that housing: Americans spend an average 9.8 years in subsidized housing today, up from seven years a decade ago.
Data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows more about who lives in subsidized housing: 30% percent of all US households are headed by women, but 75% of subsidized households are. Thirty-two percent of those subsidized households are headed by a woman with at least one child.
More Americans are living alone and unmarried.
The US defines households as a person or people residing together in one housing unit, and between 1980 and 2020, the average US household shrank by 8% to 2.5 people. More and more people are living alone and fewer are having children. The share of married family households dropped from 61% to 49% over the same period.
And while more people live alone, more people between 25 and 34 are living at home with parents, doubling from 9% of all young adults in 1980 to 18% in 2020.
In 2020, the total number of US households fell for the first time since the Census Bureau’s series began in 1940; the decline was less than one-tenth of a percentage point. However, in 2020, more people lived in two-person households and fewer people lived alone than in 2019.
The child poverty rate is falling, but that’s not the whole story.
Some promising news for the future of this nation: the child poverty rate declined 3 percentage points between 2008 and 2018. One in six of the nation’s 73 million children lived in poverty by the end of 2018, however, indicating there is more work to be done. What’s more, the number of homeless children enrolled in school increased from 774,000 to 1.5 million — a 94% increase.
Early data from 2020 shows other deficits in child welfare: Widespread school closures meant 4.6 million fewer children received free or reduced school lunch — a key source of nutrition for many — a 21% decrease over the year.
The senior population is growing faster than the general population.
Between 2008 and 2018, the population of Americans over 65 grew by 35%, while overall population growth was 7.5%.
The government is spending more (adjusted for inflation) on Social Security and Medicare as the population ages. Social Security payments for Old-Age and Survivors Insurance increased 42% over the decade, reflecting a 26% increase in the number of recipients and a 13% increase in the average monthly benefit payment. Meanwhile, total Medicare payments increased 33% as the number of Medicare enrollees grew by 32% and the average cost per beneficiary rose by 4%.
The US is increasingly a nation of immigrants.
In 2019, 14% of the US population was foreign-born, up from 11% in 2000. For the better part of the past two decades, the US foreign-born population mainly consisted of non-citizens. That started to change in 2018 when the number of naturalized citizens surpassed that of immigrants without citizenship for the first time, rising to 22.6 million people or 51% of the foreign-born population — up from 40% in 2000.
The foreign-born population is 44% Hispanic (compared to 14% of the native-born population) and 27% Asian (compared to 2% of native-born). Foreign-born people in the US are older, on average, and more likely to be employed than their native-born counterparts.
Small roads and key train infrastructure are in poor condition.
It’s a common refrain that the nation hasn’t invested heavily in “crumbling” infrastructure in decades. And then there are, of course, the many different proposals in President Biden’s infrastructure plan. But some of the first things people think of when they think of US infrastructure are roads and rail. And one’s perception of how those modes of transportation are holding up will likely vary depending on where they live or how they commute.
Three percent of all interstates were in unsatisfactory condition in 2018. These roads make up over a quarter of all vehicle traffic. However, smaller roads one might drive to get to the interstate, or the grocery, or to school, were in poorer condition. Collector roads, which help move traffic from local streets to arterial roads, make up 14% of traffic, but 48% of them were rated unsatisfactory in 2018.
Train infrastructure hasn’t been comprehensively measured since 2014, when two-thirds of train tunnels and nearly one-third of train control systems and elevated structures were rated as poor or substandard.
Data for the road ahead
The coronavirus pandemic and the nation’s responses to it have significantly affected the health and well-being of Americans and the American economy.
2020 averaged an 8.1% unemployment rate, well above 2019’s average rate of 3.7%. However, this is below the average rates from 2009 to 2011 after the Great Recession (from 8.9% to 9.6%). And though the unemployment rate dropped to 6.1% this past April, 9.8 million Americans remained unemployed — 4.1 million more than in February 2020.
As of May 17, more than 157 million Americans (or 47% of the population) had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 123 million Americans (or 37% of the population) were fully vaccinated. This comes after a concerning, tumultuous year: Preliminary death statistics show more than 3.4 million people died in the US in 2020 — 20% more than in 2019. At least 19.9 million Americans contracted coronavirus and at least 341,508 people died from the virus.
This highlights the need for transparent and timely government data. This document is just one vehicle for getting that data to the public. Just over one year ago, the USAFacts team started pulling and standardizing data to create a COVID-19 case spread map and collect government indicators for pandemic recovery, from health to the economy to consumer confidence. These efforts kept millions of citizens informed during an unprecedented time. They also highlighted Americans’ appetite for comprehensible data from their government. I welcome and urge governments on all levels to work urgently toward data transparency so Americans, the shareholders in this democracy, have an accurate accounting of how tax dollars are collected, spent, and what they get for it.
After an unsteady year, we at USAFacts hope that Americans can stand together on the same factual footing and move into the future with the data they need to make important decisions in their lives — and for the nation.