Your Taxes and Your National Parks

NPS Tax DollarsI am in the process of finishing up my 2005 federal income taxes for the IRS. Its got me thinking about my money and where my government is going to spend it. Of course, I am particularly interested in what part of my money is going towards the National Park Service. I've spent the last couple days clicking around the 'net looking for answers, and while I don't pretend to be an expert on the federal budget, here is what I've found.

For the year 2004, the IRS collected $990.249 billion dollars in income tax, and gave back $227.573 billion in refunds [excel format]. That brings the net total dollars by Individual Income Tax for the year 2004 to approximately $762.676 billion.

That $762 billion we payed in taxes last year does not represent the entire federal budget, which in 2004 was $2.229 trillion dollars. The federal budget is split into two big pieces: discretionary and mandatory. The mandatory budget covers things like Social Security and Medicare. It's the discretionary budget that I'm most interested in. This is the budget that is controlled by Congress, and is the budget that includes the NPS. According to the White House numbers, the discretionary budget in 2004 was $819 billion. OK, we are getting to a point here, I promise. Our collective income taxes represent 93% of the discretionary budget, close enough to make some dollar for dollar comparisons.

Where are our taxes going within this discretionary budget? 47% goes to defense, the remainder is divided among the other federal departments. In 2004, the Department of the Interior's share was $10.587 billion. Of that $10 billion, the National Park Service in 2004 received $2.266 billion [pdf], about a quarter of DOI's entire budget allocation.

So, now I can finally answer my question with figures from 2004 tax collections and budgets. Let's see if I can keep this straight.

NPS budget as percentage of total discretionary budget (nps budget / entire discretionary budget)
  • 2,266,000,000 / 819,000,000,000 = 0.002766 or 0.2766%

Net income tax as percentage of total discretionary budget
  • 762,000,000,000 / 819,000,000,000 = 0.9304 or 93%

Per $1000 of net income tax, how many dollars go to NPS ($1000 * NPS % of budget * income tax %)
  • (1000 * .002766) * .9304 = 2.5734 or $2.57

Before I break into this next section, understand that there is no "average home" in the United States. The very rich pay a different percentage of their income to taxes than do the very poor. Everyone is different. Every state is different. But, if there were an average family of four in 2004, and they had an average income, and they paid an average tax percentage, and if all of their federal income tax went directly to the discretionary budget, we can estimate what they would have paid to keep our National Parks running.

Median income across USA in 2004 * percentage owed in fed. taxes equals total taxes paid in 2004
  • 63,278 * 0.147 = 9301.866 or $9301

Of that average tax burden, the dollars that would go to NPS(using same formula as used earlier)
  • (9301.866 * .002766) * .9304 = 23.93822 or $23.94

There are plenty of assumptions and "what ifs" in these examples. But, it does get me closer to understanding where my tax money has gone, and how much the Park Service gets to keep. Of course, the government collects taxes from many places, not just from our income. This makes it impossible to break down by an exact percentage where any single dollar in the system is routed. At least these formulas make an attempt at a reasonable guess. And, don't forget, once you've made it to a National Park to visit, it's not as if you can show proof of citizenship to enter. You'll probably be asked to pay a little extra to Uncle Sam on the way through the gate.

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