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Federal Spending, Visualized

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said that, “Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you will be able to go to a website and get that information for the first time in history.”

What exactly did he mean by that?

USASpending.gov was launched in 2007 by the Office of Management and Budget as mandated by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. The website’s mission is: “To provide the public with information about how their tax dollars are spent.” It lets viewers search and browse through the federal funds awarded for government projects. But there’s a catch. The data are what the government has legislated to give out for projects, not the actual cash disbursements that were eventually made for the work.


While USASpending shows its data in pie charts and bar graphs, several media outlets and independent graphic designers have tried to find new ways to show what federal spending looks like and get a head start on the president’s State of the Union promise.

The New York Times visualized President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal with a treemap. You can roll your mouse over all the boxes and see how the budget changed from 2010 to 2011. There’s also an option to show or hide discretionary spending.

USA Today designed an interactive graphic that lets you enter your income and see, historically, what portion of your income is taxed and what those taxes are spent on.

Graphic designer Jess Bachman created a wall poster called “Death and Taxes,” which diagrams the federal budget’s discretionary spending. The online version can be explored like a map. Bachman was even invited onto Martha Stewart’s show to explain his work.

Design firm Pitch Interactive won an award for its budget display. The prize was from Sunlight Labs’ Design for America contest, which is organized by the Sunlight Foundation – a nonprofit, non-partisan Washington D.C. group focused on digitizing government data and making it easily accessible.

Pitch’s visualization shows the relationship between which agencies the government spends its money on and how much media attention those agencies receive. It linked discretionary spending with frequency of mention in The New York Times.

Finally, the Committee for a Responsible Budget — a nonprofit, non-partisan organization committed to educating the public about federal spending — has put together a simulation game that lets you try to balance the budget and control America’s debt.

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