Why Do We Pay Taxes?
What Your Federal, State and Local Taxes Buy You
We pay taxes because the federal, state, and municipal governments enact tax laws. That tax revenue pays for a variety of government services. The federal government collects about the same as the state and local governments combined.
Kinds of Taxes
Taxes are collected at the federal, state, and local levels.
The federal government will receive $3.9 trillion in tax revenue in fiscal year 2021. Half comes from personal income taxes. More than a third comes from payroll taxes, which is also a tax on income. Corporate taxes only pay 7% of the burden. The rest is paid by excise taxes, tariffs, estate taxes, and earnings from the Federal Reserve's holdings.
States collected almost $1.8 trillion in 2018. This is the year with the most recent figures available. More than one-third of state revenue comes from the federal government. Most of that pays for the Medicaid health care program for low-income families.
Sales taxes contributed 23.1% in 2017. Income taxes contributed 18%. Charges and fees for state universities, public hospitals, and toll roads added another 19%. States received 5% of their income from license fees, estate taxes and severance taxes. Only 2.3% is from corporate income taxes.
States keep business taxes low because they compete to attract companies and their jobs.
This category includes cities, school districts, and counties. They collected $1.6 trillion in 2018. More than one-third of their revenue comes from intergovernmental transfers. That includes state government aid for school districts and federal government payments for low-income housing.
Property taxes contributed 30.1% in 2017. Fees for water, sewage, and parking meters add 23%. Sale taxes furnish 7.3%. Some cities charge stadium and business license fees, supplying 2.4% to the total local revenue base. Other cities also charge income taxes, providing 2% to the total.
How the Government Uses Taxes
You can find out how governments use your taxes by examining their budgets. Here are the largest expenditures.
In FY 2021, the federal government plans to spend $4.8 trillion. The largest expense is payments to Social Security recipients. That's $1.2 trillion. But that's funded by payroll taxes and investments by the Social Security Trust Fund. Think of these taxes as saving for your future.
The next largest expense is Medicare at $722 billion. Payroll taxes only cover 60% of these expenses. Like Social Security, you are paying for services you'll receive after you turn 65.
The third-largest service provided by the federal government is defense at $705 billion.
That includes support agencies like Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Military spending prevents attacks that subsequently didn't happen. It's also spent overseas in wars. It's hard to measure the benefit you receive from this because you don't see it.
Medicaid is the fourth-largest service at $448 billion. You only receive this if your income falls below a certain level.
Even if you never need it, you benefit by helping low-income children and their families receive preventive care. Without it, they use the expensive hospital emergency room as a primary care physician. You pay for that through higher hospital and insurance fees. Studies have also shown that medical care is critical to allow children to become productive members of society.
The government is spending more and more on the interest on the national debt. For FY 2021, it's $378 billion.
The interest payment is growing because Congress routinely follows deficit spending. Your state and local governments must follow balanced budget laws. Otherwise, they'd overspend too. The federal budget deficit gets added to the debt each year. It allows us to receive services now that we don't have to pay for until the future.
Other welfare and government retirement programs total $645 billion. These programs have been mandated by prior acts of Congress.
All other government agencies total $676 billion. The largest is Health and Human Services at $96 billion. It's the administrative arm for Medicare and Medicare. The Department of Education is $67 billion. Many well-known agencies are much smaller. For example, NASA only spends $25 billion.
In 2017, states spent $2.3 trillion. More than 40% of state budgets went to social services, including Medicaid, welfare, and public housing. States administer federal funds for these programs. States spent 18% of their budgets on higher education. Just 9% went to hospitals, 8% to roads, and 3% to corrections. State police forces only cost 1%.
Local governments spent $1.9 trillion. Of that, 40% went to elementary and secondary education. Just 10% went to hospitals and 6% to police. Localities spent 4% each on welfare programs and roads. They spent 3% on higher education, and 2% on corrections.
Many cities have underfunded their pension funds. Detroit, Michigan, and Stockton, California declared bankruptcy. They defaulted on their municipal bonds so they could protect pensions and improve other services.
Whether at the federal, state, or local levels, elected officials determine how taxes are spent. If you don't like how your money is being spent, or if you're willing to give up services to pay lower taxes, then contact your representatives and let them know.
The Constitution gives Congress "the power to lay and collect taxes." Congress takes direction from the president's annual budget. Most changes to taxes begin in the White House. The president will mention it in the State of the Union Address. It will also be in the budget.
The tax bill starts in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The House Ways and Means Committee must approve the bill first. The Committee reviews it, calling in experts to weigh the pros and cons. Industry leaders discuss how it will affect their businesses. The committee asks the Treasury Secretary to explain the details. It even gives the public a chance to weigh in. The Committee then votes on the new tax. It drafts the legislation that's submitted to the House.
Once the House approves it, the bill goes to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. It holds its own hearings. It then writes its own legislation that it submits to the full Senate. If the Senate agrees with the House bill, it sends it to the president for signature.
More often, the Senate comes up with its own version. The House and the Senate have their own agendas. The Senate sends its version back to the House. If the House disagrees, it forms a Conference Committee to iron out the differences. That final version is sent to the president for signature. By then, it may have become a completely different bill.
The entire process is one giant negotiation among elected officials from different states and parties. Various industry lobbyists are also influential. Special and general interest groups also weigh in.
Each state's legislature decides what kinds of taxes to impose. They also approve rate increases. They must determine if the taxes will be enough to pay for spending. They must also compare their tax structure to those of competing states.
Most taxing authorities have elected representatives, such as city councils, boards, or commissions. They decide the types of taxes for their jurisdiction.
The Bottom Line
We pay taxes to fund a variety of federal, state, and local services. Half of Americans' tax burden is for federal programs. Most of this pays for Social Security, Medicare, and Defense. State and local taxes pay for Medicaid, infrastructure, and libraries.
The White House. “A Budget for America’s Future: FY 2021,” Table S-4. Accessed June 9, 2020.
Tax Policy Center. “What is the Breakdown of Revenues Among Federal, State, and Local Governments.” Accessed June 9, 2020.
Tax Policy Center. “What Are the Sources of Revenue for State Governments?” Accessed June 9, 2020.
Tax Policy Center. “What Are the Sources of Revenue for Local Governments?” Accessed June 9, 2020.
World Health Organization. "Investing in Children’s Health: What are the Economic Benefits?” Accessed June 9, 2020.
Tax Policy Center. "State and Local Government Expenditures." Accessed June 9, 2020.
Urban Institute. "State and Local Expenditures." Accessed June 9, 2020.
Bernard Securities. "Detroit and Stockton Emerge from Chapter 9 – A Few Facts, Observations and Takeaways." Accessed June 9, 2020.
U.S. Department of the Treasury. “Writing and Enacting Tax Legislation.” Accessed June 9, 2020.
Conference of State Legislatures. “Tax Policy Handbook for State Legislators, Third Edition.” Accessed June 9, 2020.