Americans Have No Idea Where Their Tax Dollars Go

Don’t bet on it.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

With tax reform and a looming debt limit on Congress's agenda this fall, we're going to hear a lot of talk about government spending. So here's a refresher on how the U.S. government actually spends its (our) money:

Where the Money Went

Major categories of U.S. federal spending, 2016 fiscal year

Source: White House Office of Management and Budget

This exercise in chart-making was inspired in part by an account, from an excellent new profile by Politico's Mike Grunwald of White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, of a May meeting between Mulvaney and President Donald Trump.


“Look, this is my idea on how to reform Social Security,” the former South Carolina congressman began.

“No!” the president replied. “I told people we wouldn’t do that. What’s next?”

“Well, here are some Medicare reforms,” Mulvaney said.

“No!” Trump repeated. “I’m not doing that.”

“OK, disability insurance.”

This was a clever twist. Mulvaney was talking about the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which, as its full name indicates, is part of Social Security. But Americans don’t tend to think of it as Social Security, and its 11 million beneficiaries are not the senior citizens who tend to support Trump.

“Tell me about that,” Trump replied.

“It’s welfare,” Mulvaney said.

“OK, we can fix welfare,” Trump declared.

You can see from the chart why Mulvaney — whose agency compiled the data used in it – would have brought up Social Security (the non-disability kind) and Medicare first. Between them they account for 37 percent of federal spending. Social Security disability insurance takes 3.7 percent. That doesn't mean disability insurance couldn't stand some reforming. It's just a much smaller pot of money.