Sunday, April 17, 2011

Where Did My Taxes Go?

I wish every voter would look at the website before tossing out opinions about NPR, Planned Parenthood or any other budget-related topic. It's a neat interactive pie chart: You plug in the amount you made in 2010, and it shows how the money got used.

Colorful pie chart showing federal spending breakdown
Tiny budgetary items like NPR or Planned Parenthood don't show up in it, I admit, but that's only because they're so small.

When you put your mouse over any wedge, it tells you the dollar amount and percentage. If you click, it gives you detail on how that portion broke down, explaining what goes into each.

For instance, I had no idea what "Income Security" meant -- and it was one of the largest parts. Well, here's the breakdown of how the 16 percent of budget called Income Security is spent:

  • 34 percent: unemployment
  • 16 percent: retirement funds for civil servants and military
  • 15 percent: what most people think of as "welfare" in some sense -- food stamps at 9 percent make up most of it, with about 2 percent each to TANF (what used to be called AFDC), rental assistance, and child nutrition (school lunches and breakfasts, and summer food programs)
  • 6 percent: SSI, direct payments to adults with disabilities who cannot work
  • 15 percent: Tax credits to low-wage workers, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, child credit, first-time homebuyers, and other credits you may have just been asked about on your tax forms
  • 13 percent to a variety of smaller programs
Because my mind was on this tool even as I was doing my own tax forms, I couldn't help reading an op-ed in today's Pioneer Press by someone from the Heritage Foundation on the same exact topic. Brian Riedl explains where Federal spending per household goes, but he divides his numbers up differently and even includes some contradictory ones.

Riedl combines Medicare and Social Security into a single 32 percent chunk, I suspect because he didn't want Defense to be the largest single item, as it is in the charts. Even so, his Defense number is higher: 20 percent of the total. His listing of interest on the federal debt is only a bit over 5 percent -- what's up with that big decrease? And somehow, his anti-poverty programs (which include all of the income support items outlined above) are said to account for 17 percent of the total instead of 16, even though he lists unemployment benefits separately at over 3 percent.

How is it possible that these two analyses are so different? I'm not sure, but on the whole, I think I'll take the online tool over Riedl's groupings because its methods are much more transparent and a lot more detail is available.

By the way, despite public misconceptions that NPR (or actually the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which also supports public television) gets as much as 5 percent of the budget, it's actually .01 of 1 percent ($420 million). Planned Parenthood gets even less ($360 million). Each uses the money to support a network of stations or clinics across the country. Ironically, those dollar amounts are very similar to moneys allocated for several Defense line items that even the Defense Department doesn't want, but which Congress has passed anyway.


Unknown said...

I tried the website right away and I'm amused with how the taxes are broken up to be distributed to the agencies and departments that will benefit. Using those interactive tools, people will realize that a lot of agencies will benefit from the taxes that they pay dutifully.

Lenora Morgan

B. T. said...

Just go to Google Image search and type "federal spending breakdown." It won't take you long to see that there is a wide variety of pie charts to choose from. I wouldn't take any of them as absolute gospel, since it seems that everyone has some type of agenda these days.