Doing Our Bit for Defense

April 14, 2014

Having exhausted all possibilities for procrastination, I finally prepared my tax returns. Then I got a receipt from the National Priorities Project. You can too — and as I did, also get a receipt for the typical taxpayer in your state.

Here are some things I learned.

First off, District of Columbia filers paid, on average, $5,560 more than the average for taxpayers nationwide. The District’s average is, in fact, higher than the averages for all but one state — Connecticut.

This, of course, speaks to how very well the better-off households in the District are doing. How the less well-off are doing is a different story. It’s doubtful that those in the bottom 20% earned enough to owe any federal income tax this year.

But however much or little we owe, we pay the same portions for each and every item in the federal budget.

So about 27 cents of every dollar we pay goes to defense.* For the average D.C. taxpayer, this translates into $4,681, plus nearly $873 for veterans benefits, which NPP tabulates separately.

Skimming down the receipt, I see that this same taxpayer will contribute about $1,744 to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but only piddling amounts to other programs for low-income people. For example, s/he’ll chip in:

  • $42.07 for WIC  — probably about 60% of the cost of one month’s worth of the healthful foods supplement for one low-income mother or child in the District.
  • $23.36 for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — just a few dollars more than the cost of restoring SNAP (food stamp) benefits for one of D.C. household that receives them.
  • $106.24 for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — about 25% of the current maximum cash benefit for a D.C. family of three.
  • $215.87 for Pell grants and other student financial aid.

Now, the receipt doesn’t account in detail for all income tax dollars that support programs for low-income people. SNAP and free and reduced-price schools meals, for example, are included in the Food and Agriculture category, but not broken out.

And I haven’t cited above two the receipt itemizes that benefit low-income people, as well as others, i.e., job training and employment programs and the Community Development Block Grant.

But even adding them in still leaves the average D.C. taxpayer — and me — spending nearly 10 times as much on defense. I’m sure as can be that the federal budget could “provide for the common defense” with less.

That would leave more to patch the frayed safety net and to help more people achieve economic security without it. There’d be more to meet other essential needs too, e.g., protecting public health and safety, refurbishing our neglected infrastructure, enforcing civil rights and labor laws.

Perhaps not enough more, however. I, for one, would be willing to pay higher taxes — painful as that would seem at this time of year — if a larger share went to these priorities.

Congressman Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues in the House would instead cut my taxes — or so it seems. The Center for American Progress, among others, says they’d actually rise.

Whichever, the just-passed House budget plan will clearly shift more of our tax dollars into defense  — and drastically reduce our relatively small contributions to major safety net and other non-defense programs.

Obviously not a budget reflecting my priorities — or those of most of my fellow taxpayers either, according to the polling data NPP cites.

We’ve got to do more than grumble at tax time to get a budget we like.

* The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports a considerably lower figure. This is mainly because it includes Social Security and Medicare. NPP excludes spending from dedicated revenue streams like payroll taxes.