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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Stimulus Bill

Q: What will the stimulus bill cost per family?

A: The added federal debt comes to about $10,000 per family. A Republican senator who used a figure 10 times higher than that is wrong.


Sen. Johnny Isakson states … that:

"At a cost of nearly $100,000 in debt for every American family and as the bill primarily spends money on programs that are not stimulative, I could not support the Democratic stimulus bill H.R. 1."

I don’t believe $100,000 figure is correct. If we have 300 million Americans and an average family size of 4, that is 75 million households. The stimulus package was $787 billion. This equates to debt of $10,500 per family. That is one-tenth of the amount stated above. What figures is he using?


We like the way this reader thinks. When he received this suspiciously large cost figure in an e-mail from Republican Sen. Isakson of Georgia (full text of letter here), he did some rough calculations to test its accuracy. He knew that the total U.S. population is roughly 300 million in very round numbers (nearly 306 million, according to the Census Bureau’s population clock on Feb. 16.) Some quick arithmetic shows there’s something seriously exaggerated about Sen. Isakson’s $100,000-per-family claim.

To our alert reader’s figures, we can only add some refinements. His calculations confused "families" – the term used by Isakson – with the broader term "households." And he didn’t account for the complicating factor of the millions of single persons who live apart from families. But either way, the reader is essentially correct, and Isakson was wrong by a mile.

By the Numbers

There were 116 million households in the U.S. in 2007, according to the most recent figures published by the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. See Table AVG1. Families are not the only ones who live in households. Singles, widows and widowers and others living apart from their families can also make up a household. But since Isakson referred specifically to "family," we should look at another figure. A "family" by definition is more than one person, and includes married couples and single parents living with their children.

Looking only at "family households," (Table AVG2) the number comes out to be pretty close to our reader’s guesstimate of 75 million. The Census figure is 78,425,000.

For the official, precise estimate of total debt added by the stimulus bill, we turn to the Congressional Budget Office, which puts the total increase in the deficit over 10 years at $787.2 billion.

And dividing $787,200,000,000 by 78,425,000 families comes to $10,038 per family. Furthermore, the number of families is almost certainly larger now than it was in 2007, so the per-family figure would be even lower than that.

To be sure, even $10,000 is a lot of money for anybody. But whether you count household or families, Isakson exaggerates the cost by at least a factor of 10.

Isakson’s Staff Responds

When we pointed this out to Isakson’s Deputy Chief of Staff Joan Kirchner, she told us by e-mail that the letter was worded "in a confusing way" and would be corrected.

Kirchner: Thank you very much for pointing out our misstatement. We are going to revise the letter and send it out again.

Kirchner said Isakson meant to say something different: "When you add the cost of this bill to the total national debt, it’s $100,000 per family to pay off that national debt."

That’s true enough, but isn’t saying much. The total national debt already stands at nearly $10.8 trillion, and figures out to more than $137,000 per family without adding in a penny from the stimulus bill.

Kirchner may be referring to the portion of the debt held by the public, excluding what the government owes to itself, chiefly through the Social Security trust fund. That figure already exceeds $6.5 trillion, and amounts to $82,292 per family. But nearly half of that was added during the eight years of the Bush administration.

–Brooks Jackson