What Do the Top 1% Really Pay in Taxes?

 
 
October 24, 2011

Income Declines for Top Earners, While Effective Tax Rates Creep Up

Washington, DC, October 24, 2011--The income earned by the top 1% of Americans has declined for the second year in a row while their average tax rate has increased, according to a new Tax Foundation study. The average federal tax rate for those reporting at least $343,927 in income has increased from 22.5% in 2007 to 24.0% in 2009, while the average income for the top 1% has declined from $1.4 million to $1 million over the same period.

The Tax Foundation's analysis is based on new data from the Internal Revenue Service on individual income taxes, reporting on calendar year 2009.  The amount of individual income tax paid steeply declined by $166 billion, twice the decline from 2007 to 2008.  Nationally, average effective income tax rates were at their lowest levels since the IRS began tracking them in 1986. The average tax rate for returns with a positive liability went from 12.2% in 2008 to 11.1% in 2009.

"During a time of economic downturn, we expect to see significant changes in both total income reported and the share of taxes paid by those with the highest incomes," said Logan. "Unlike middle-income wage-earners whose incomes and tax liabilities are fairly steady, high-income people tend to realize significant capital gains that fluctuate wildly with the economy, causing their income tax liabilities to fluctuate as well."

In 2009, the top 1% of tax returns earned 16.9% of adjusted gross income and paid 36.7% of all federal individual income taxes. In 2008 those figures were 20.0% and 38.0%, respectively. Each year from 2005 to 2007, the top 1 percent's constantly growing share of income earned and taxes paid set a record. The 2008 reversal of this trend continued in 2009. 

The study also takes a look at the very highest earners, the top 0.1 percent of tax returns, which the IRS only began singling out in recent years. In 2009, those 138,000 tax returns accounted for nearly 7.8% of adjusted gross income earned (down from almost 10% in 2008), and they paid around 17% of the nation's federal individual income taxes (down from 18.5% percent in 2008).

"The very highest income group—the top one-tenth of one percent—actually has a lower average effective income tax rate than the rest of the top 1 percent of returns because these extremely high-income returns are more likely to have income from capital gains and dividends, which are typically taxed at lower rates," said Logan. "It's worth pointing out that in the case of capital gains and dividends, however, income derived from these sources has already been taxed once by the corporate income tax, which is not included in the current study, meaning the average effective tax rate numbers can be somewhat misleading."

Tax Foundation Fiscal Fact No. 285, "Summary of Latest Federal Individual Income Tax Data," by economist David S. Logan is available online.

The Tax Foundation is a nonpartisan research organization that has monitored fiscal policy at the federal, state and local levels since 1937. To schedule an interview, please contact Richard Morrison, the Tax Foundation's Manager of Communications, at 202-464-5102 or morrison@taxfoundation.org.

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