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Tax Returns Made EZ

Warming Up

Try this at the start of the class period where you plan to use the main activity. It should take no more than 5-10 minutes, and will get your students thinking together about taxes.

  1. Ask students how much tax money they think the U.S. federal government took in last year.  Take answers one at a time, noting down individual answers on the board.  If you think it will help focus their attention, announce that the person coming closest to the correct answer will get a reward of your choice.
  2. Here are some past annual receipt totals.  These numbers are from table 475 in the 2012 Statistical Abstract of the United States.

For historical comparison, the following numbers are from table 544 in the 1999 Statistical Abstract of the United States

  • 1995 - $1.409 trillion
  • 1990 - $1.067 trillion
  • 1985 - $770.080 billion
  • 1980 - $541.441 billion

(Note: Should your students need an introduction to help them cope with the magnitude of numbers the size of those above, see How Big is a Billion?)

  1. Go on to ask where this money comes from.  Lead a brainstorming session to generate a list of probable categories, rank ordered from the most to least lucrative.
  2. Here is the estimated breakdown for 2011.  Again, these numbers are from table 475 in the 2012 Statistical Abstract of the United States.
  1. Personal income tax - $956 billion (44.0%)
  2. Social Insurance and retirement trust funds - $806.8 billion (37.1%)
  3. Corporate income tax - $198.4 billion (9.1%)
  4. Excise taxes - $74.1 billion (3.4%)
  5. Other taxes - $138.4 billion (6.4%)

The National Priorities Project shows this chart depicting projected income (by category) from the 2015 Budget.

  1. Explain that the activity they are about to begin is designed to show them how that largest chunk (the personal income tax) is collected, and the part they will play in this annual ritual for much of their lives.
  2. Go on to the main activity.

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original web posting: Thursday, April 15, 1999
last modified: Wednesday, January 06, 2016