Putting A Face On America’s Tax Returns: Summary

March 28, 2019

What is often missing from the federal tax debate is a real sense of who America’s taxpayers are and how different policies impact their lives. Our Putting a Face on America’s Tax Returns series aims to address that.

How do today’s taxpayers compare to yesterday’s and what shifts should we be aware of? Who really bears the burden of federal taxes? Who benefits from credits and deductions and by how much? How progressive is our current tax system and what role do taxes play in the debate over income inequality?

The posts below are designed to provide taxpayers and legislators with the facts and data necessary to better understand federal tax policy and have an open and productive debate.

America Already Has a Progressive Tax System

If the tax system weren’t progressive, each income group would bear a share of the total tax burden equal to its share of the nation’s income. In fact, high-income taxpayers pay a larger share of the tax burden, while lower- and middle-income individuals shoulder a relatively smaller tax burden. This is true for both federal income taxes and the federal tax code overall. Read more.

Income Taxes on the Top 0.1 Percent Weren’t Much Higher in the 1950s

By historical standards, the very top income earners do not face an unusually low income tax burden. While the average rates for total taxes on the top 0.1 percent have fallen 10.8 percentage points from the 1950s, average income tax rates have remained relatively stable. In the 1950s, the top 0.1 percent of households paid average income tax rates of 21.0 percent, versus 20.7 percent as of 2014. Read more.

Who Shoulders the Burden of Federal Income Taxes?

The current federal tax system is already progressive and higher-income taxpayers shoulder a majority of the tax burden and pay considerably higher average tax rates than that of lower- and middle-income individuals. The bottom 90 percent of taxpayers accounted for about 45 percent of the overall tax burden in 1986, compared to approximately 31 percent in 2016. Conversely, the top 10 percent of taxpayers have seen an increase in their tax burden over the same period, from 55 percent of total income taxes in 1986 to almost 70 percent in 2016. The top 1 percent paid an average federal income tax rate that was nearly 2.5 times higher than the rate paid by all other taxpayers. Read more.

The Composition of Federal Revenue Has Changed Over Time

Before 1941, excise taxes, such as gas and tobacco taxes, were the largest source of revenue for the federal government, comprising nearly one-third of government revenue in 1940. Excise taxes were followed by payroll taxes and then corporate income taxes. Today, payroll taxes remain the second largest source of revenue, while individual income taxes comprise nearly half of all revenue. Corporate income and excise taxes have decreased relative to other sources. Read more.

The Top 1 Percent’s Tax Rates Over Time

Top marginal income tax rates often differ from effective tax rates. In the 1950s, when the top marginal income tax rate reached 92 percent, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid an effective rate of only 16.9 percent. As the top marginal income tax rate has fallen, the top 1 percent’s income tax burden has increased. Read more.

Who Benefits from Itemized Deductions?

While the tax code contains preferences that benefit lower- and middle-income households, such as the earned income credit and the child tax credit, others, like itemized deductions, primarily benefit high-income households. According to the JCT, high-income taxpayers will claim 52 percent of the state and local tax deduction, 84 percent of the charitable donation deduction, and 60 percent of the mortgage interest deduction. Even so, the overall burden of the individual income tax remains progressive. Read more.

How Do Transfers and Progressive Taxes Affect the Distribution of Income?

Taxpayers face higher average federal tax rates as income increases. For example, those in the lowest quintile paid an average federal tax rate of 1.5 percent in 2015, while those in the highest quintile paid an average rate of 26.7 percent. The bottom two quintiles experience a negative income tax as a result of refundable tax credits, and the result of all federal taxes and transfers is a redistribution of income from high- to low-income households. Read more

A Growing Percentage of Americans Have Zero Income Tax Liability

The percentage of nonpayers (taxpayers who owe zero income taxes after taking their credits and deductions) has risen over time, from 28 percent in 1950 to 33.4 percent in 2016. As the value of refundable tax credits increases, more people find themselves paying no income taxes, and as fewer Americans pay income taxes, the remaining taxpayers shoulder a greater share of the burden. Read more.

Increasing Individual Income Tax Rates Would Impact a Majority of U.S. Businesses

Most U.S. businesses are pass-through businesses, such as partnerships, S corporations, LLCs, and sole proprietorships. These businesses “pass” their income “through” to their owners, which is reported on the owners’ individual income tax returns. Progressive marginal rates can discourage pass-through business owners from conducting business activities that would increase their income—such as investing in new capital, hiring workers, and producing goods for consumers. Changes to the individual income tax, especially to top marginal rates, can affect a business’s incentives to invest, hire, and produce. Read more.

Average Income Tends to Rise with Age

The income of an average taxpayer rises dramatically as he or she ages and gains education and experience. For example, in 2016, taxpayers nearest to retirement, ages 55 under 65, reported average adjusted gross income (AGI) of $99,836. Compared to the average AGI for all taxpayers of $69,317 and the average of $18,798 of the 18 under 26 age group, we can see that incomes tend to rise as taxpayers grow older and more experienced. A snapshot of income data in one year cannot tell the life cycle story of income. Read more.

New Report Shows the Burdens of Payroll and Income Taxes

The tax burden for most Americans in 2019 –67.8 percent—will come primarily from payroll taxes, not income taxes. One possible reason for the relatively heavy payroll tax burden is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which lowered income taxes for most individuals. While the income tax is progressive, with average rates rising with income, the payroll tax is regressive, with the highest average rate falling on Americans with the lowest incomes. Read more

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