Careful shoppers want to know what they're paying for. That's why a Washington, D.C., think tank and some members of Congress are proposing that Uncle Sam give all us taxpayers an itemized receipt when we file our taxes.
Most taxpayers, say staffers at the left-to-center Third Way group, don't know exactly where their dollars go. This contributes to mistaken beliefs about how best to close the national budget gap.
A recent University of Maryland poll, for example, found that Americans on average believe that one quarter of all federal spending goes to foreign aid. But an itemized receipt would show a typical middle-class family with an income of $50,000 and $6,883 in federal income taxes and payroll taxes that only $42.80, or 0.6 percent, of their taxes goes to foreign aid.
In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, David B. Kendall, senior fellow for health and fiscal policy at Third Way, and Ethan Porter, contributing editor at the journal "Democracy," argued that breaking out individual tax contributions would help correct such spending misconceptions.
A receipt alone wouldn't suggest solutions. But it would provide hard numbers on government programs that most now view as abstract entities. That should then make it easier for taxpayers -- and legislators -- to discuss the budget cuts and tax expenditures necessary to realistically cut the federal deficit.
Third Way has created a calculator it says gives taxpayers an idea where their personal taxes go. It convinced a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., to introduce legislation that would create a taxpayer receipt.
Here's how taxpayer receipt advocates say the process should work.
After you file your taxes, you would receive an itemized receipt, by e-mail for those who file electronically or by regular mail for those who sent in paper forms.
The one-page document would cover major items such as defense, Social Security and interest on the debt. It would also direct taxpayers to a website where they could find more information on all federal spending.
What about the cost of a taxpayer receipt program? Supporters say it would be a bargain.
It's estimated that the Internal Revenue Service would have to spend about $15 million to mail receipts; the cost of e-mailed receipts would be negligible. Website maintenance costs also would be relatively small.
But the payoff would be less confusion about the federal budget. That's a pretty good return on investment.
Would you like a receipt detailing how your taxes are spent? If it showed most of your money went to a federal program you supported, would the receipt help change your mind on cuts to that program?