Grade 9-12

What Do You Get for Your $1,818,600,000,000?

Updated: June 26 2015,
Author: Hugh Stoddard

Using MS Excel and data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis web site on federal government spending, students will compare the amounts spent on various sectors and programs over a range of years.


capitalThe students need to have a basic knowledge of national income accounting. This is found in most textbooks or on this presentation. They also need to be computer literate (but not experts).

What does the U. S. Federal government do with the money it collects and what is the source of that revenue? Many people have opinions on what the government should spend its money on, and this activity provides some of the data used by economists to formulate an informed opinion. Gathering actual U.S. Government figures and organizing that information simulates how economists collect and interpret data.

Learning Objectives

  • Use data to illustrate federal income and expenditure patterns.
  • Compare federal spending on two or more objectives over time.

Resource List

  • An example showing tax receipts from personal taxes and corporate taxes.


officeWhat makes some opinions more authoritative than others? Expert opinions are those that are supported by facts and evidence and therefore carry more weight than opinions formed without a factual basis. Economists don’t always agree with each other, but they always use factual data to support their opinions. This activity will simulate a data driven opinion formation process.

  1. View the national income and product accounts tables . Look specifically at government receipts and expenditures. You can select time periods (quarterly or annually) and ranges for years to view. Download this table using the directions at the bottom of the page, and then open it as a spreadsheet file (For example, using Miscrosoft Excel).

    (NOTE: Some experimentation with the procedure for downloading is probably necessary. If problems arise, the activity can be done using a single NIPA Table downloaded by the teacher and presented to the students for interpretation and graph generation. Here is an
    example showing tax receipts from personal taxes and corporate taxes is shown .)

  2. To open the tables in Microsoft Excel
    • Open Excel and go to File -> Open
    • If you do not see the table in the folder you placed it in, change Files of Type to All Files (*,*), and your tables should appear.
    • A window should appear asking how you want the information organized.
      • In the first box change Fixed Width to Delimited and press next.
      • In the Delimiters box check commas and press next.
      • Press finished.
  3. Use the Excel ‘Chart Wizard’ to create and format a chart that makes a visual representation of your data. For example, a pie chart could illustrate the percent of government expenditure on various objectives or percent of tax receipts from different sources. A line graph could illustrate changes in government spending over time.
  4. Explain the decisions you’ve made in selecting data and how you or someone else could use your chart to support an opinion about federal government policies and functions.


white houseCall-in programs on talk radio and newspaper opinion pages are filled with people expressing their opinions. Economists use actual data such as the NIPA Tables to form their own opinions. In most cases they need to reorganize data in order to present their evidence to others in a clear and concise format. This activity simulates how an economist develops and presents an expert opinion.


Extension Activity

A article for follow-up lessons is:, which gives information about how the NIPA Tables are created.

This activity can be expanded indefinitely to examine various aspects of the national economy using both an economic and an historical perspective.


This activity is a precursor to considering the question, "How should the federal government spend its money?" Students' answers can be presented in any one of several formats. In each case, answers should be evaluated based on understanding of the data used, selection of relevant data that could be used to support an opinion, and clarity in presenting the data to others.

To assess their learning, have students print the chart they created and offer an explanation of what the chart illustrates. This can be done either in written form or orally.

Student explanations should be ecaluated on the following criteria:

  1. Chart is neat and legible.
  2. A reason(s) is given for why data was included on the chart.
  3. A reason(s) is given for the years selected for inclusion on the chart.
  4. Students express how the data chosen could be used to support an opinion.