I remember when I got my first real job after graduating college. My new employer was paying me more than anyone had ever paid me before. But I had to move to a new city, which meant looking for a new apartment.
It was my first time living alone and looking for a place that wasn’t cheap student housing, and I made one huge mistake: I calculated how much rent I could afford based on how much I made before taxes.
When my first paycheck arrived hundreds of dollars short of what I calculated, I realized my error. I had paid taxes before, of course. But in my new job, I had nearly tripled my income from the fast-food gig I’d held through most of college. For 23-year-old me, this was a whole new ballgame.
I wanted to know where my tax money was going.
General information was available, but finding specific answers to that question was hard back then. But now, USAFacts.org, a project headed up by Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, makes it easier to know exactly what our tax dollars are doing.
Where Do My Taxes Go? What the Database Can Tell You
Ballmer is the former CEO of Microsoft and, well, rich AF to put it bluntly.
According to Forbes, he is worth $30.2 billion. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he pays more annual taxes than I did at my first job after college.
So when his wife wanted him to get involved in one of her philanthropic projects, he argued that by paying taxes, he had already done enough. To prove it, he went on a mission to find out where his millions in tax dollars had gone and who he had helped.
What he found was that his millions in taxes — like my thousands — were hard to track. So he decided to gather a nonpartisan group of economists, writers and researchers to create a tax database with human impact at the forefront.
What Can This New Database Tell You?
Tracking every dollar of the more than $5 trillion that flows through government coffers each year is no small task.
Ballmer and his team needed a way to organize that information so we would all be able to use it, even if we don’t have a degree in economics and had never read a government budget proposal.
The database provides you information about how much of your taxes go toward broad categories like military, policing, social issues.
While Ballmer does not criticize or praise how government spending impacts issues, the database pairs dollars spent with outcomes so we can all come to those conclusions on our own.
In 2014, for example, the federal, state and local governments spent nearly $800 billion on education.
At the same time, the most recent numbers available showed that the average public school teacher made about $56,000, the high school dropout rate was about 7%, and the average reading score on the SAT was 496.
Using the information and data about past spending and results, you decide whether the government is properly managing our tax dollars. The best part is that you can see this kind of comprehensive analysis for just about any issue.
Ballmer and his team rolled out the project Tuesday, and they are still adding some features. So go play with it, and see how your tax dollars are helping your fellow humans. This can help you determine if you think our government is spending wisely or not.
Your Turn: What is the most important issue to you? Is government spending helping?
Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. The page on USAFacts.org she is most fascinated by so far is the measure of how we’re doing on accomplishing The American Dream.