The National Priorities Project provides much-needed transparency on how tax dollars get spent.

Most of each dollars goes to funding the military.

National Priorities Project also explains the difference between discretionary spending (money allocated directly by Congress) and mandatory spending (money allocated through entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare).

The group also provides interactive tools to help people visualize where their own money is going and think about how their own priorities could better be reflect in the federal budget.

2014-04-14

It's Tax Time: Do You Know What You're Paying For?

For the cost of the Tomahawk Cruise Missile program, we can hire 4,784 elementary school teachers for one year. Use this tool to find out where your tax dollars are going and how they might be better spent.

No one really likes paying taxes, even if deep down we know they're essential for the functioning of basically everything we take for granted, like functioning roadways and social security.

But it never hurts to have a clearer understanding of where, exactly, your money is going. Fortunately, a nonprofit called the National Priorities Project has done the hard work of making taxes and the federal budget easily understood.

National Priorities Project, which was recently nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, has spent 30 years informing the U.S. citizenry by making the federal budget more transparent. Today their tool of choice for conveying this information is through interactive and visualized data. The graphic below shows very clearly the breakdown of where every single tax dollar goes:

As you can see, the biggest slice of our taxes goes toward military spending, closely followed by health care. Interest on the federal debt takes up a sizable chunk of a tax dollar, while energy and environment, science, transportation, education, and international affairs get the smallest contributions.

But there's more to the federal budget than just income tax dollars. National Priorities Project also explains the difference between discretionary spending (money allocated directly by Congress) and mandatory spending (money allocated through entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare). As National Priorities Project explains on its website:

"Mandatory spending is largely made up of earned-benefit or entitlement programs, and the spending for those programs is determined by eligibility rules rather than the appropriations process. For example, Congress decides to create a program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. It then sets criteria for determining who is eligible to receive benefits from the program. The amount of money spent on SNAP each year is then determined by how many people are eligible and apply for benefits.

Congress therefore cannot decide each year to increase or decrease the budget for SNAP. Instead, it can review the eligibility rules and may change them in order to exclude or include more people."

True to its name, National Priorities Project also provides interactive tools to help people visualize where their own money is going and think about how their own priorities could better be reflected in the federal budget.

There is a personalized tax day receipt where users input the amount of federal taxes they pay and see a complete breakdown of where their own money is actually going. Through the group's trade-offs tool, visitors can decide where they can reallocate tax money to projects they are more interested in. I found, for instance, that for the cost of the Tomahawk Cruise Missile program, we can hire 4,784 elementary school teachers for one year or power 288,000 households through wind power.

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14 Comments

  • Matthew Glover

    One only needs to look at their paystub to see that the majority of our tax dollars go to Social Security and Medicare. 40% of my federal taxes go there, which is much higher than the 27% you state goes to the military.

    It's obvious that you're not including FICA and Medicare in these charts, which are both federal taxes. You don't need to lie.

  • Having a separate pie chart for discretionary and mandatory spending is at best misleading, at worst, intentionally deceptive, because it visually equates them. Mandatory spending is the majority of US government spending, and is growing rapidly

  • i'm interested in seeing if that's a breakdown of direct federal expenditures or if it includes disbursements through grants and other programs to states and local governments.

  • Nick Eberle

    You need another 40 cents next to it representing all the shit that the government pays for with debt.

  • Some how you forgot to mention how many thousands of people the Tomahawk Program employs and the carry through of how many people benefit from the salaries paid to those people. You forgot the military to civilian transfers in technology, medicine, human resources and the benefits of living in a society where innumerable freedoms have been bought and paid for by the professionals that constitute the military and associated industries. It is not our military that costs the lives of so many but the politicians who play games with the aftermath of military actions. The Department of Defense, despite its errors, actually works. Dept of Ed., Energy, HHS, Agriculture, I'd say less so. Its not how much you pay, rather the benefits of that investment. Another 4,000+ elementary school teachers? The only beneficiaries will be teachers unions.

  • Anita Welych

    So, DoD works? here's a quote from the Congressional Record of 2013: "About 30 years ago, we heard horrific stories about wasteful spending of taxpayers' dollars being spent: $436 on a hammer, $7,600 on coffee makers, and $640 for toilet seats. We all thought, Well, it has been taken care of. Well, not so fast. I am showing you right now what is a plumbing elbow. At the local hardware store, this elbow sells for $1.41. But the taxpayers of this country spent $80 to a defense contractor that charged us that much money for this elbow. How about a box of washers? At the local hardware store, we as individuals would pay something like $1.22 for this box of washers. What did the taxpayers of this country pay a defense contractor for a box of washers? How about $196.50?" I don't know any teacher or even school district that lays out that kind of money for supplies. What could 4,000 teachers benefit? How about struggling inner-city schools? How about our future?

  • Program Managers in DoD establish a set of performance parameters for a particular item and ask contractors to bid on that item. Bids are reviewed and sent to Congress for approval. Congress modifies, rejects, approves, etc. DoD passes Congress' actions to the contractor. Money is approved and spent by Congress, often to the disapproval by DoD itself. Congress often compels DoD to use material it does not want. Congress often stretches out the buy for material causing price distortions. Many times Congressional decisions are more about keeping constituents satisfied and politicians employed that satisfying the needs of DoD.

  • Marquese Martin-Hayes

    We should also add that more teachers won't resolve the broken system of Education. Quality programs, adequate training, frequent teacher evaluations and a revival of the Dept of Ed is where we should began. I also appreciate the stories of my peers who moved from their country to America. The inhuman occurrences that they experienced shouldn't be mentioned here. Granted we spend a lot on Defense, but have you read the papers on the alternatives lately? There's a reason we haven't had war on our soil in recent history.