D.C. Decoder: Where do your tax dollars actually go?

In a recent survey, Americans said slashing money for space exploration would help balance the federal budget. But the bulk of tax dollars go to other programs.

Some years ago, a poll asked Americans what they would cut from Washington spending to balance the budget. The top choice? Military bands.

To be fair, this was the early 1980s, and Democrats were poking at Ronald Reagan over allegations that the Pentagon was spending $100 million on music. But come on, people: Fewer tubas for the Air Force were never going to put Uncle Sam in the black.

Decoder was reminded of this when perusing a recent poll that asked a similar question. Among the items respondents thought should be slashed was “space exploration.”

Sure, that’s it. If we get rid of the secret NASA program to evacuate celebrities to Mars when Earth blows up in 2012, the budget will be balanced in no time.

So, where do tax dollars actually go? The average taxpayer tends to be a little hazy about the answer. In the spirit of providing a little New Year’s fiscal education, we’ll try to help out.

Let’s say we’re dealing with just one of your tax dollars. Most of it goes toward three things: Social Security, Medicare and other health programs, and defense.

Each of these big three gobbles up between 21 and 22 cents of your dollar, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). That means about two-thirds of that dollar is gone, and as yet NASA is nowhere in sight.

Safety-net programs, such as the earned income credit and school lunches, take up 11 cents. Interest on the national debt takes 8 cents.

Less than a quarter is left, and that must pay for everything else the US government does. Benefits for federal retirees and veterans get 
6 cents, according to CBPP numbers. Scientific and medical research gets 3 cents; education gets 2 cents. Foreign aid (another thing people would be glad to cut) gets a whopping penny.

Remember, this is a breakdown of a typical year. It would not reflect this year’s spending pattern, which included bailout and stimulus spending. But we’re talking about the structural federal government here – not anomalies that will abate, leaving larger deficits behind.


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