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D.C. Decoder 101: How Washington spends your money

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Of these, Medicare is the Big Kahuna. This program, which funds health care for the elderly and Americans with disabilities, accounts for two-thirds of federal health spending (about $486 billion), according to CBPP.

Medicaid provides health services for certain low-income people and families, and CHIP covers kids growing up in financially tight circumstances. Both are partly funded by states, as well as by Washington.

SOCIAL SECURITY. Just behind health is Social Security, which provides income benefits to retired folks, the disabled, and some other recipient categories. This program accounts for 20 percent of Washington’s budget, figures CBPP.

Social Security checks go out to a little more than 55 million people, according to the program’s own figures. Of these, 44 million are retirees or their dependents, and 10 million are disabled workers or their dependents.

For retirees, Social Security’s average monthly benefit at the beginning of 2012 was $1,230, according to the program.

DEFENSE. Defense used to be the biggest single item by far in the US accounts. In 1962, at the start of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, it accounted for 52 percent of US government spending. As recently as 1987, at the height of the Reagan-era military buildup, it was 30 percent of the budget, and still category No. 1.

But the end of the cold war enabled the US to pare back on some fixed military costs. The aging of the population and the dynamics of medical inflation have driven up health and Social Security expenditures. As a result, defense is now No. 3, by CBPP’s count. It’s also 20 percent of the US budget, but it’s a few billion bucks smaller than the Social Security program.

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