Federal income taxes: “They don’t take them to be mean.”

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Fifth grade class/ Creative Commons photo by superkimbo

A few weeks ago I spent the morning at Jackson Street Elementary School in Northampton, Massachusetts.

My daughter is enrolled at Jackson Street in Jen Reed’s Kindergarten class, where I’ve – happily – volunteered in the past. But during this last visit I was with the “big kids” – the fifth graders. My host was Mary Cowhey, Jackson Street’s Title I math instructor. Mary asked me to teach about the federal budget in order to build students’ math and civic capacity. After all, there are a lot of “big numbers” in our nation’s budget and you and I are intimately connected with all of them. In a democracy, we both fund the government and reap the benefit of government services and programs.

We began our lesson talking about federal income taxes, and asked students to prioritize the spending of one federal income tax dollar by distributing its 100 pennies between 12 separate budget categories. Like so many past participants in this exercise, the students spoke passionately about federal investment in education, health care, the environment, and jobs. One student later wrote that he didn’t know that his parents had to pay for all “this stuff.” And – after learning about all the ways the government spends our federal income tax dollars – a second student said she realized that the government doesn’t take our taxes “to be mean,” but rather to pay for things we say we want and need.

Kids have a way of laying out complex concepts with such wise simplicity.

By talking about their family’s income tax contribution, these two fifth graders nailed the real struggle we all have as we try to better understand our relationship to the U.S. federal budget. We don’t have the ability to see the efforts of our nation’s government in our midst. It’s also tough to remember that we – the bill payers – are actually contributing to a fund that pays for some of the services and programs that we say we value, time and again.

Several days after my visit, I received a note from a student named Jennifer. She wrote that she really enjoyed acting “like the government and [deciding] where we would put the money.” In a nutshell, that’s why my National Priorities Project colleagues and I come to work every morning. Participating in our democracy – making a meaningful contribution to the conversation about federal spending and revenue priorities – can be exhilarating. And it’s a thrill every American has the right to experience.

In honor of young people thinking big thoughts, take a moment and check out NPP’s suite of Tax Day materials. Run a tax receipt so you can see how you personally contributed to programs ranging from WIC to nuclear weapons. Play with our all-new and wildly popular Trade-Offs tool so you can see how much taxpayers in your own city or town pay toward a variety of federal programs – and what else that money could buy. And, if you haven't yet spoken with your paycheck, take a few minutes to view our animated video If Paychecks Could Talk.