New tools calculate your tax dollars at work

The White House joins Google contest winners to offer Web-based ways to gauge your federal contribution.

The moment is probably still etched in your mind. After hours of reading, factoring and figuring, you filed your 2010 tax return.

Ever wonder how all that money is being spent? There are several new ways to find out.

The White House has created a website called Your 2010 Federal Taxpayer Receipt. Taxpayers can enter the taxes paid, and "for the first time ever" they can "see exactly how their federal tax dollars are spent," the website says.

But the White House site has some rivals. Thanks to $10,000 in prize money offered by Google and the New York-based Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, about 40 design teams participating in the Data Viz Challenge created sites that illustrate in various ways where federal tax dollars go.

But like the variety of tax preparers who make a living following 1040 instructions and crunching numbers, the differing sites often come up with differing answers even when using the same income information.

The White House site, for example, figures that a couple with $80,000 in income and two children paid $9,983 in federal taxes this season.

But the site Can I Get a Receipt With That? says the same couple would have paid $18,522 in taxes.

The site What You Pay For agrees that the bill is $18,522, while Where Did My Tax Dollars Go? calculates the couple's tax bill at $15,645.

The differences arise because the different sites included different factors in calculating taxes, said Edward Lee of Eyebeam. Some sites, for example, included a standard deduction, others did not.

To further complicate matters, some of the sites base their calculations on federal receipts as well as expenditures. "Their interface displays the sum of these transactions," so the receipts have the effect of reducing tax bills, though in reality, they might not, Lee said.

The White House site includes tax exemptions many taxpayers are entitled to take, which accounts at least in part for the lower tax bill it figures for the $80,000 couple, said Sam Rosen-Amy, a fiscal transparency analyst for the government monitoring group OMBWatch.

The White House site also keeps Social Security and Medicare taxes separate from other federal taxes when it calculates how much of an individual's taxes are spent on the various functions of government. That provides a more accurate calculation, Rosen-Amy said.

The bottom line, the White House says, is that the couple with the $80,000 income pays $3,863 in income taxes, of which $1,016 is spent on national security. The calculation correctly reflects that none of the $4,960 tax they paid into Social Security or the $1,160 they paid for Medicare was spent on defense, he said.

Other sites do not appear to make that distinction, but instead divide the taxpayer's total bill by the proportion of the budget that each program consumes. That provides a different calculation of how much the taxpayer contributes to each program.

Compared with the White House numbers, for example, Can I Get a Receipt With That? says that the couple paid $3,722 for Social Security, $3,715 for national defense and $2,377 for Medicare.

There are other discrepancies. The White House site says national defense consumes 26.3 percent of the budget, but Where Did My Tax Dollars Go? says defense took 17 percent, and Visualizing U.S. Budget Spending says it's 20 percent.

Similar differences emerge in the various sites' percentage calculations of health care costs, government interest payments, income security programs (which include unemployment trust fund payments, military and civilian government worker pensions, child nutrition, and other programs) and other budget categories.

"It's kind of unfortunate that all of the sites don't agree," Rosen-Amy said. But in a larger context, they all illustrate the same overall pattern in government spending: "You have a handful of programs that the government spends the vast majority of its money on -- national defense, retirement security and health care."

And there is very little left over for spending on much else. Education receives about 5 percent of the federal budget; renewable energy, 0.5 percent; natural resources and environment, 1 percent; community and regional development, 0.5 percent; science, space and technology about 1 percent.

The winner of the Data Viz Challenge, Where Did My Tax Dollars Go?, was awarded $5,000 for best data visualization. The site displays tax and budget information in easy-to-understand pie charts with pop-up dollar amounts and percentages. "Great visualization," Rosen-Amy said. "That's something we wish the government did better."

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