Whether we like to admit it or not, the United States is quickly working its way to being a nation buried under the weight of its own debt. As of this writing, the US is currently in over $27 trillion in the red and the bottom line is getting redder by the second. In FY2020 alone, the United States printed off over $1 trillion more than it brought in through tax revenues.

Of the seemingly endless supply of dollars printed and spent each year by the federal government, Americans would be shocked to learn that billions of it is simply wasted. In fact, according to an Open the Books oversight report, titled “Improper Payments,” federal agencies wasting billions doesn’t even scratch the surface. “Since 2004, twenty large federal agencies have admitted to disbursing an astonishing $2.3 trillion in improper payments.” That is TRILLIONS with a T. The organization notes that by the federal definition, an “improper payment,” is “payments made by the government to the wrong person, in the wrong amount, or for the wrong reason.” $175 billion in improper payments were discovered by the organizations audit of 2019 alone.

Here are some of the biggest offenders in the federal government, according to the report:

Department of Health & Human Services

The mission of this agency is to ““Enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans. We fulfill that mission by providing for effective health and human services and fostering advances in medicine, public health and social services.” This agency administers Medicaid and Medicare health insurance programs and has been the source of billions in waste over the years. “…improper payments from Medicare and Medicaid soared from $64 billion in 2012 to $88.6 billion in 2017 to $103.6 billion.”

The Department of Defense

The mission of this agency is to “Provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.” Waste at the Pentagon covers an array of programs ranging from active military pay, pension funds, and vendor payments. In 2018 and 2019, the department faced its first ever audits, which examined upwards of $2.9T in assets and $2.8T in liabilities. Waste at the Pentagon amounted to billions, with $8.7B in improper payments towards “…spending on civilian, military, retirement and travel pay; health benefits; payments to vendors; and more.” In 2019 the Pentagon shelled out “$4.6 million on lobster tail and snow crab.”

Social Security Administration

The mission of this agency is “Supporting our [SSA] customers by delivering financial support, providing superior customer service, and ensuring the safety and security of your information – helping you secure today and tomorrow.” But if securing tomorrow means the sound fiscal administration of taxpayer dollars, then the agency appears to be negligent. “In 2019, Social Security recipients received $8.2 billion in improper payments – with overpayments amounting to $6.9 billion.” In 2019, there were reportedly six million active social security numbers for Americans aged 112 and older. Unfortunately for the American taxpayer, “…there are only 40 people in the entire world aged 112 and over.”

Transparency is one of the driving issues which would help to address the problem of such astronomical waste. That the Department of Defense was not ever subject to audit prior to 2018 underscores the failure of government when it comes to managing the public purse. Bureaucratic inefficiency is another source of the extreme loss of money incurred by the taxpayer, with billions of dollars thrown away as agencies pay out to entities and individuals whose eligibility they cannot ultimately determine while continuing to issue payments to them. Reigning in the scandalous waste of the American taxpayer’s money can only be achieved when the government is willing to open the books and hold themselves accountable for their mismanagement. Reports like “Improper Payments” are essential first steps in this process, but the solution to government waste must ultimately be achieved in the legislative process.


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