Ah, tax-filing time! Last year, I used this space to talk about tax day, including appreciating what good we do together with our tax dollars. I provided a pie chart—of how much goes to our streets and parks and libraries, our security in old age, and our shared investments in the future. Because, really now, what mama blog worth its salt doesn’t include a tax pie chart? (Keep Austin weird!)
Now we’re in an election year and the pollsters’ are finding we women are especially likely to see this connection between our tax dollars and what results from them. So let me say it again: if on Presidents’ Day we talk about presidents’ achievements and on Mother’s Day we acknowledge moms, on tax day we ought to stop and think about the good we do with our taxes. Here’s what you and I helped accomplish:
- We extended a lifeline for millions by providing needed health care for seniors, children, and people with disabilities.
- We kept our country and communities safe from terror and crime, epidemics and accidents, blight and ignorance.
- We invested in public safety and public health, education, science, research, and economic development that made our lives better.
- We maintained and built schools, libraries, parks, and roads for not just ourselves but future generations, too.
More than a few things have changed since last year—lawmakers didn’t step up to protect a lot of the public’s priorities (as my fellow blogger Eileen has noted)—but what we did (vs. how well we did it) breaks down pretty similarly. With our federal, state, and local taxes, we sheltered ourselves from the storms of old age and economic crises, we built walls to protect us from the things our communities and country deem unsafe, we gave ourselves a foundation of public systems everyone gets to use and benefit from, and we used our investments in children as a window to a better future. If you want something other than a pie chart for how that would look, try this:
The largest share—over 40%—went for security. (The vast majority of this is Social Security and Medicare, but it also includes Medicaid and food assistance for the elderly and disabled, benefits for veterans and the unemployed, etc.)
In this country, we have a privately driven economy that allows individuals to reach the height of success—and we also have a publicly supported roof over our heads. That way, if the market or another force outside our control like aging, sends trouble our way we have some shelter from the worst. That includes reliable funds in retirement through Social Security, income when we get laid off through the unemployment trust, and Medicare and Medicaid, for when we’re too old or infirm for affordable private health care.
More than 1/6 of our total tax dollars went for defense and safety. (Military expenses, police, prisons, disaster response, EMT, fire stations.)
Community security matters a lot to our peace of mind, too, so a good portion of our taxes protect the nation as a whole, by providing for the military, and keeping communities safe, with police, prisons, fire departments, emergency management systems, and more. Consider these the walls that hold up our metaphoric home.
We gave ourselves a foundation of strong communities. (Over 1/8 of total taxes were used for transportation, parks, research, higher education, libraries, waterways, environmental and consumer protections, etc.)
Even in a perfect world, without enemies, disasters, bad luck, or trouble in old age, we would still collect taxes to pool our resources for those things that help our economy and improve quality of life. So at the foundation of our home is what holds us together. For example, even if we don’t all go to college, we all benefit from breakthroughs in medicine and technology from the research there and from having more people get ahead with a college education. This category goes toward many things we all need and consider part of our common good, like highways, roads, bridges, waterways, parks, libraries, hospitals, food inspections, and environmental protections.
We paid interest on the national debt.
Taxes we fail to collect or allocate lead to national debt, so about 4% of your total taxes went toward paying down past loans last year. It could be more in future years, though, if revenue and expenses don’t come into better alignment. Picture this as the weeds growing in the yard: something that could get out of control if it isn’t addressed.
Roughly 1 in 5 dollars went toward our future: kids. (Schools, children’s health care and nutrition programs, after-school programs and preschool, vaccinations, child protection, etc.)
At the intersection of all the good things government does is children, the people who will decide our shared legacy. We need to invest in them for the good in our communities to continue. Otherwise, the house we build together with our taxes is dark, missing that window to better tomorrow. Because it’s important to educate our future workforce, the biggest share by far in this category is for schools. Together, we also help cover the basics, so that many kids who need to can see a doctor, can have a safe place to go after school, can get vaccines and meals, and can escape abusive homes. This whole category may be where your tax dollar gets the most bang for the buck.
So if no one else thanks you this week for all you did with your taxes, I will: Thanks for making a difference!
* My calculations are based on mostly 2009 data. They are explained more here, but one thing to note is that the federal stimulus made some impact that year that wouldn’t be true today.