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Pentagon, budget, poverty, public health

Overspending on the Pentagon Is Hazardous to Your Health

A traditional concept of security has led to inadequate investment in public health and is taking a toll on Americans.

Words: William D. Hartung
Pictures: Anh Nguyen

America is hurting. Even as the job market tightens and wealthy Americans are thriving, tens of millions of Americans are struggling to keep food on the table and secure adequate healthcare. The “American dream” — the faith in upward economic mobility and personal freedom — has been a foundational belief even though it left out large numbers of Americans. But now it is under siege.

The latest evidence of the threat to American lives and livelihoods comes in a new study that has found that life expectancy in the United States has declined in the past few years at the highest rate in nearly 100 years. The impact has been felt across the board, but the most severe consequences have been for Black and Hispanic Americans, with an even higher rate of decline among Native Americans and Alaska natives.

The precise causal effects of this devastating development have not been determined, but Dr. Steven Woolf has cited the following trends, as summarized by the New York Times:

“[A] fragmented, profit-driven health care system; poor diet and a lack of physical activity; and pervasive risk factors such as smoking, widespread access to guns, poverty and pollution. The problems are compounded for marginalized groups by racism and segregation.”

Many of these factors are tied to behavioral and cultural issues, like the dogged attachment to easy access to guns among many Americans and the opposition to masking in response to the COVID pandemic, but the other crucial issue is the failure to adequately invest in public health, anti-poverty programs, and environmental protection. This is in sharp contrast to the penchant of the executive branch and Congress to lavish near-record amounts of funding on the Pentagon. If the majority in Congress has its way, spending on the Pentagon and work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy will hit $850 billion next year, far higher than at the height of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the peak year of the Cold War, adjusted for inflation.


Throwing these vast sums at war and preparation for war routinely accounts for at least half of the US government’s discretionary budget, coming at the expense of domestic investments that could seriously address the plagues of poverty, disease, and environmental devastation.

A narrow, traditional concept of security is contributing to the decline in life expectancy. There needs to be a shift from serving the needs of the military-industrial complex to spending more to address the needs of public health.

Spending on public health is a case in point. Annual spending on just one weapons system — the troubled F-35 combat aircraft, which the Project on Government Oversight has determined may never be fully ready for combat — is comparable to the entire discretionary budget for the Centers for Disease Control. And a 2022 report by the Center for American Progress found that an investment of just $4.5 billion per year — about one-third the cost of a new aircraft carrier — would “ensure equitable and sustained foundational public health services for all.” The greatest beneficiaries of this spending imbalance are the top five weapons contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon Technologies, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman — which together racked up over $200 billion in defense-related revenue last year.

The sorely needed shift from serving the needs of the military-industrial complex to spending more to address the need to fight poverty and improve public health has been championed by the Poor People’s Campaign, which is billed as a “national call for moral revival” and is the source of a “poor people’s moral budget” that calls for sharp decreases in Pentagon spending in favor of investments in healthcare, education, anti-poverty programs, and measures to address climate change and other environmental challenges, like the need to provide and sustain access to clean water in communities like Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi.

A narrow, traditional concept of what constitutes security is a contributor to the decline in life expectancy. A combination of a streamlined approach to national defense and the generation of increased revenue to address urgent non-military challenges is essential to reversing the trend of declining life expectancy and quality of life. The task must be approached with what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “the fierce urgency of now” — a formidable challenge, but one that cannot be avoided.

William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of “Pathways to Pentagon Spending Reductions: Removing the Obstacles.”

William D. Hartung

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