Death and taxes: How much of your tax bill goes to the Pentagon?
Photos: AP / Collage: People's World

Many of us rushed to file our taxes before this year’s April 18 deadline. While we all hope for a refund to help pay the rent or cover a vacation, we also want our taxes themselves to pay for worthwhile things.

Every year, my project at the Institute for Policy Studies creates a tax receipt to help people see what their taxes paid for. Here’s what we learned this year.

On the one hand, our federal income taxes fund a lot of good, popular things. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has saved lives. Food stamps (also known as SNAP) feed millions of hungry children and families. And Medicare will be there for all of us as we age.

On the other hand, there’s a lot that we might want to do differently.

You probably expect that some of your federal income taxes go to the military. But did you know that the average taxpayer spent $1,087 on private military contractors alone? That’s more than double the $474 that went towards paying the troops.

Unfortunately, that means you’re subsidizing multimillion-dollar salaries for contractor CEOs while many troops rely on food stamps. (You also help pay for those.)

What’s more, a lot of Pentagon spending funds things that aren’t popular at all.

Despite lacking any clear purpose, the war in Afghanistan went on for 20 years and cost more than $2 trillion. It was a clear, tragic failure that the vast majority of us were ready to end well before the U.S. pullout.

Yet Pentagon leaders never had to seriously account for what went wrong. Instead, Congress gave the Pentagon and its contractors more money when the war ended—the opposite of what most of us would expect.

While throwing good money after bad at the Pentagon, we’re not investing enough in domestic programs that actually work.

For example, it’s conventional wisdom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But the average taxpayer paid $20 for federal prisons compared to just $11 for programs to end homelessness, despite the fact that stable housing has been shown to reduce crime.

Then there’s the Child Tax Credit.

This is a shining star among government programs, one that helped cut child poverty in half when it was expanded during the pandemic. It’s hard to ask for better results than that.

The average taxpayer paid $345 for the Child Tax Credit in 2022. If you have children, it’s likely that you got more than that from getting the Child Tax Credit yourself. But Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress let the expansion expire in late 2021, abandoning a policy that worked and allowing child poverty to climb.

Scientists are united on the fact that we need to cut carbon emissions now or face dire consequences.

Yet the average taxpayer paid less than $7 for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs in 2022. They got charged more than 10 times that amount for nuclear weapons, which themselves present an existential threat to humanity.

Most of us also support programs for cleaner air and water, which have saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars. Yet the average taxpayer paid less than $22 for the Environmental Protection Agency, which was tasked with responding to the horrific chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, that threatened communities in multiple states.

The same taxpayer paid five times as much for a single Pentagon contractor, Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35 jet fighter. Unlike our successful clean air and water programs, the F-35 fighter is notorious for its failures and expense.

So, let’s hope you got that refund and use it for something worthwhile. But let’s also demand that our government prioritize programs that are worthwhile and make our lives better—and jettison the ones that don’t.

Institute for Policy Studies / OtherWords

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Lindsay Koshgarian
Lindsay Koshgarian

Lindsay Koshgarian is the Program Director of the National Priorities Project, where she oversees Her work on the federal budget includes analysis of the federal budget process and politics, military spending, and specifically how federal budget choices for different spending priorities and taxation interact.