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Santorum on the budget: Close enough for government work

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:39 AM EST, Thu February 23, 2012

Editor's note: Part of the CNN political fact-checking series

(CNN) -- Rick Santorum pointed out the growth of government benefits compared to defense spending during Wednesday night's Republican candidates debate in Mesa, Arizona, hosted by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona.

The statement: "When I was born, less than 10% of the federal budget was entitlement spending. It's now 60% of the budget. Some people suggest defense spending is the problem. When I was born, defense spending was 60% of the budget. It's now 17%. If you think defense spending is the problem, you need a remedial math class to go back to." -- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, on the growth of U.S. government benefits.

The facts: Santorum was born in 1958. At that time, two of the three major federal entitlement programs -- Medicare or Medicaid -- didn't exist, and Social Security had cut its first check only 18 years before.

The federal government spent $82 billion that year. Social Security cost $8.2 billion, 10% of that total.

By 2011, federal spending had grown to $3.6 trillion, and $2.1 trillion of it was "mandatory human resource programs," according to the White House budget office. That includes about $480 billion for Medicare, the federal health care program for seniors; $275 billion for Medicaid, which funds health care for the poor; and $725 billion for Social Security. With other programs such as disability payments, federal pensions and food aid included, those programs work out to 58.3 % of federal outlays.

Defense spending, meanwhile, went from about $47 billion in 1958, near the height of the Cold War, to nearly $706 billion in 2011, the 10th year of a "war on terror." But as a percentage of federal government outlays, it shrank from 57% to just under 20%.

The verdict: True -- within a couple of percentage points, anyway. Santorum's statement accurately characterizes the changing ratio of U.S. spending over his lifetime, as federal insurance programs grew to take up a much larger percentage of the budget.

CNN's Matt Smith and Amy Roberts contributed to this report.

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