By: David Leonhardt
April 13, 2010
That's the portion of American households that owe no income tax for 2009. The number is up from 38 percent in 2007, and it has become a popular talking point on cable television and talk radio. With Tax Day coming on Thursday, 47 percent has become shorthand for the notion that the wealthy face a much higher tax burden than they once did while growing numbers of Americans are effectively on the dole.
Given that taxes are likely to be one of the big political issues of the next few years -- and maybe the biggest one -- it's worth understanding who really pays what in taxes. Once you do, you can get a sense for our country's fiscal options. How, in other words, will we be able to close the huge looming gap between the taxes we are scheduled to pay and the services we are scheduled to receive?
The answer is that tax rates almost certainly have to rise more on the affluent than on other groups. Over the last 30 years, rates have fallen more for the wealthy, and especially the very wealthy, than for any other group. At the same time, their incomes have soared, and the incomes of most workers have grown only moderately faster than inflation.
So a much greater share of income is now concentrated at the top of distribution, while each dollar there is taxed less than it once was. It's true that raising taxes on the rich alone can't come close to solving the long-term budget problem. The deficit is simply too big. But if taxes are not increased for the wealthy, the country will be left with two options.
It will have to raise taxes even more than it otherwise would on everybody else. Or it will have to find deep cuts in Medicare, Social Security, military spending and the other large (generally popular) federal programs.
All the attention being showered on "47 percent" is ultimately a distraction from that reality.
The 47 percent number is not wrong. The stimulus programs of the last two years -- the first one signed by President George W. Bush, the second and larger one by President Obama -- have increased the number of households that receive enough of a tax credit to wipe out their federal income tax liability.
But the modifiers here -- federal and income -- are important. Income taxes aren't the only kind of federal taxes that people pay. There are also payroll taxes and investment taxes, among others. And, of course, people pay state and local taxes, too.
Even if the discussion is restricted to federal taxes (for which the statistics are better), a vast majority of households end up paying federal taxes. Congressional Budget Office data suggests that, at most, about 10 percent of all households pay no net federal taxes. The number 10 is obviously a lot smaller than 47.
The reason is that poor families generally pay more in payroll taxes than they receive through benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit. It's not just poor families for whom the payroll tax is a big deal, either. About three-quarters of all American households pay more in payroll taxes, which go toward Medicare and Social Security, than in income taxes.
Focusing on the statistical middle class -- the middle 20 percent of households, as ranked by income -- underlines this point. Households in this group made $35,400 to $52,100 in 2006, the last year for which the Congressional Budget Office has released data. That would describe a household with one full-time worker earning about $17 to $25 an hour. Such hourly pay is typical for firefighters, preschool teachers, computer support specialists, farmers, members of the clergy, mail carriers, secretaries and truck drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Taking into account both taxes and tax credits, the average household in this group paid a total income tax rate of just 3 percent. A good number of people, in fact, paid no net income taxes. They are among the alleged free riders.
But the picture starts to change when you look not just at income taxes but at all taxes. This average household would have paid 0.8 percent of its income in corporate taxes (through the stocks it owned), 0.9 percent in gas and other federal excise taxes, and 9.5 percent in payroll taxes. Add these up, and the family's total federal tax rate was 14.2 percent.
I realize that it's possible to argue that payroll taxes should be excluded from the discussion because they pay for benefits -- Social Security and Medicare -- that people receive on the back end. But that argument doesn't seem very persuasive.
Why? People do not receive benefits equal to the payroll taxes they paid. Those who die at age 70 will receive much less in Social Security and Medicare than they paid in taxes. Those who die at 95 will probably get much more.
The different kinds of federal taxes are really just accounting categories. At the end of the day, the government has to cover the cost of all its operations with revenue from all its taxes. We can't wish our deficit away by saying that it's mostly a Medicare and Social Security deficit.
If anything, the government numbers I'm using here exaggerate how much of the tax burden falls on the wealthy. These numbers fail to account for the income that is hidden from tax collectors -- a practice, research shows, that is more common among affluent families. "Because higher-income people are understating their income," Joel Slemrod, a tax scholar at the University of Michigan, says, "We've been overstating their average tax rates."
State and local taxes, meanwhile, may actually be regressive. That is, middle-class and poor families may face higher tax rates than the wealthy. As Kim Rueben of the Tax Policy Center notes, state and local income taxes and property taxes are less progressive than federal taxes, while sales taxes end up being regressive. The typical family pays a lot of state and local taxes, too -- almost half as much as in federal taxes.
There is no question that the wealthy pay a higher overall tax rate than any other group. That is an American tradition. But there is also no question that their tax rates have fallen more than any other group's over the last three decades. The only reason they are paying more taxes than in the past is that their pretax incomes have risen so rapidly -- which hardly seems a great rationale for a further tax cut.
So why are those radio and television talk show hosts spending so much time arguing that today's wealthy are unfairly burdened? Well, it's hard not to notice that the talk show hosts themselves tend to be among the very wealthy.
No doubt, like the rest of us, they don't particularly enjoy paying taxes. They are happy with the tax cuts they have received lately. They would prefer if other people had to pick up the bill for Medicare, Social Security and the military -- people like, say, firefighters, preschool teachers, computer support specialists, farmers, members of the clergy, mail carriers, secretaries and truck drivers.