Thinking About Tomorrow

Federal Spending | Policy Reports | Social Security

No. 317
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
by Andrew J. Rettenmaier and Thomas R. Saving

How large is the federal government's debt? The figure most likely to be reported in newspapers is the debt held by the public. This measure currently stands at $6.3 trillion and is rising. However, the debt held by the public tells only a small part of the story. How should the government account for the predicted shortfalls of Social Security and Medicare? Officially, they are considered government "obligations," but not "liabilities" or "debts." The reason: retirees and workers do not have a contractual right to the benefits they expect to receive.

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