Tax dollars at work


Last week was the deadline for filing federal income taxes, a cause for mourning unless you’re one of those lucky few U.S. corporations that pays no income tax. But the rest of us had to pony up.

I got a refund, which I know means I gave the U.S. government an interest-free loan every month last year. You’re welcome, Uncle Sam. Don’t blow it all on one Hellfire missile.

But that did get me thinking: Where does all that tax money go?

The Heritage Foundation was thinking the same thing. They sent me a handy graphic of a dollar bill, shaded to show about half goes to “major entitlements,” such as Medicare, Medicaid, and other health care programs, along with Social Security. Another 20 percent goes for “income security and other benefits,” 18 percent goes to national defense, 6 percent to interest on the debt, 3 percent to transportation, and 1 percent to K-12 education. (The final 3 percent goes to “all other” programs.)

But the White House offered me a chance to get a “federal taxpayer receipt,” which I figured would come in handy if I’m ever audited. (IRS criminal investigations, by the way, is one of those areas where most American taxpayers are perfectly cool with not getting all the government for which they pay.)

According to my receipt, most of my tax return went to health care (25 percent), including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program; Medicare doctor payments; health research and food safety; disease control and public health services. Another 19 percent went to unemployment insurance: food and nutrition assistance (i.e. food stamps); housing assistance; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; and retirement benefits and disability for federal military and civilian employees.

I’m glad. It’s been a tough recession, and there are a lot of people out there who are hurting. I’ve been pretty fortunate, all things considered, and I don’t mind sharing the wealth with people who have not been anywhere near as lucky as I have. (I’d be even happier paying for federal retirement benefits if some FBI agents had been able to slap the cuffs on a few of the reckless bankers who actually helped cause the recession.) And I wouldn’t complain if a few more of my dollars had gone to augment what we pay doctors for treating Medicare patients, which could help with access to health care.

And yes, I agree we need to enact some reasonable and intelligent reforms to Social Security and Medicaid, if only so we can keep them going for future generations.

Another 25 percent of my payment went to national defense, including military personnel salaries and benefits; ongoing operations; research, development, weapons and construction. I actually think we can trim the budget here, and the Pentagon agrees. (Congress has forced the military to keep spending money on programs generals and admirals say we don’t really need.)

Meanwhile, a paltry 0.64 percent of my tax bill went to NASA, and 0.49 percent to the National Science Foundation and research. I’m not at all happy with that. The fact that we have to rely on Russia to get our astronauts to the International Space Station — at a time when we’ve got a pretty big disagreement with the Russians over their unprovoked invasion of Crimea — is unconscionable. And the fact that we spend so little to understand and explore the mysteries of the universe is something this taxpayer would prefer to see change in the future. So maybe we can shift some money within the federal budget from defense to boost the meager 2.85 percent of my dollars the government devotes to education?

If nothing else, the federal taxpayer receipt proves that we get something in return for our tax dollars, which is something people sometimes forget. You can calculate yours at http://www.whitehouse.gov/2013-taxreceipt.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.