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Inflation Indexing in the Individual Income Tax

5 min readBy: Lyman Stone

Download Testimony: Inflation Indexing in the Individual Income Tax

Inflation IndexingInflation indexing refers to automatic cost-of-living adjustments built into tax provisions to keep pace with inflation. Absent these adjustments, income taxes are subject to “bracket creep” and stealth increases on taxpayers, while excise taxes are vulnerable to erosion as taxes expressed in marginal dollars, rather than rates, slowly lose value. in the Individual Income TaxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities.

Testimony before the Maryland House Ways and Means CommitteeThe Committee on Ways and Means, more commonly referred to as the House Ways and Means Committee, is one of 29 U.S. House of Representative committees and is the chief tax-writing committee in the U.S. The House Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over all bills relating to taxes and other revenue generation, as well as spending programs like Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, among others.

February 18, 2014

Lyman Stone

Economist, Tax Foundation

Chairperson Hixson, Vice-Chairperson Turner, Members of the Committee:

My name is Lyman Stone, and I’m an economist at the Tax Foundation. For those unfamiliar with us, we are a non-partisan, non-profit research organization that has monitored fiscal policy at all levels of government since 1937. We have produced the Facts & Figures handbook since 1941, we calculate Tax Freedom Day each year, we produce the State Business Tax Climate Index, and we have a wealth of other data, rankings, and information at our website, In my testimony today, I will offer a brief description of why inflationInflation is when the general price of goods and services increases across the economy, reducing the purchasing power of a currency and the value of certain assets. The same paycheck covers less goods, services, and bills. It is sometimes referred to as a “hidden tax,” as it leaves taxpayers less well-off due to higher costs and “bracket creep,” while increasing the government’s spending power. indexing is important, and how it should function in an ideal tax code.

Inflation Indexing is a Standard Feature in a Modern Tax Code

Since the federal government’s adoption of it in 1986, inflation indexing has become increasingly standard in state income tax modernizations. Of the 34 states with bracketed income tax systems, 14 of them wholly or partially index their tax bracketA tax bracket is the range of incomes taxed at given rates, which typically differ depending on filing status. In a progressive individual or corporate income tax system, rates rise as income increases. There are seven federal individual income tax brackets; the federal corporate income tax system is flat. s to inflation. It enables state tax codes to remain fair and appropriate without frequent legislative intervention.

House Bills 0522, 0528, and 0557 all include reforms which would incorporate significant components of inflation indexing in key components Maryland’s tax code, such as the standard deductionThe standard deduction reduces a taxpayer’s taxable income by a set amount determined by the government. It was nearly doubled for all classes of filers by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) as an incentive for taxpayers not to itemize deductions when filing their federal income taxes. , personal exemptions, and the tax brackets themselves. While we at the Tax Foundation take no position on legislation, I hope to give a review of the topic at hand and contribute our understanding of the related economic literature.

Inflation Indexing is Vital for Taxpayers and Employers

In a state that does not index tax provisions to inflation, taxpayers suffer from what is known as “bracket creepBracket creep occurs when inflation pushes taxpayers into higher income tax brackets or reduces the value of credits, deductions, and exemptions. Bracket creep results in an increase in income taxes without an increase in real income. Many tax provisions—both at the federal and state level—are adjusted for inflation. .” This phenomenon causes wage inflation to push nominal wages, or a worker’s wages “on paper,” up even as taxpayers’ purchasing power remains the same. With higher nominal wages, they are pushed into higher tax brackets and owe more taxes. Paying higher taxes on income that is worth the same amount is especially damaging for low-income taxpayers, who are the most likely to suffer from significant bracket creep due to Maryland’s numerous clustered tax brackets on lower income levels.

Furthermore, a lack of inflation indexing creates uncertainty about taxpayers’ future real income. Taxpayers not only have uncertainty about the dollar amount of future income and future inflation, but they have uncertainty about future real taxes. This uncertainty about the real value of future tax payments violates a key principle of sound tax policy, namely that tax policy should be transparent and stable and not prone to unpredictable swings. Inflation indexing stabilizes expectations about the real value of future taxes by ensuring taxpayers that their inflation-adjusted tax burden, the real cost of taxes, will remain roughly stable unless the legislature actively changes the tax code through the normal public process.

Without inflation indexing, tax burdens rise faster than wages: but also faster than a business’ inflation-adjusted revenue. Employees will seek to preserve their after-tax incomeAfter-tax income is the net amount of income available to invest, save, or consume after federal, state, and withholding taxes have been applied—your disposable income. Companies and, to a lesser extent, individuals, make economic decisions in light of how they can best maximize their earnings. and demand raises at a rate faster than inflation, but employers can only offer raises at the pace of inflation. Thus, lack of bracket indexing makes it hard for businesses to hang on to the high-skilled workers who drive modern economic growth.

Inflation Indexing Should be Appropriately Structured

Inflation indexing operates by chaining the threshold for every tax provision to an appropriate measure of inflation, making necessary adjustments in January of each year. For example, tax brackets and standard deductions should be tied to a measure of wage inflation. Wage indices are generally preferable to price indices in order to ensure that taxpayers’ effective tax rates don’t fluctuate, and to stabilize the share of state income going to the government.

Moreover, inflation measurements ought to correlate to jurisdictional lines: Maryland’s inflation indexing should be based on inflation in Maryland, not inflation throughout the nation. For convenience, most indexing states use various provisions of the federal Internal Revenue Code similar to federal inflation indexing, but this can result in tax brackets changing at a faster or slower rate than is appropriate for a specific state. Among inflation indexing states, only California indexes based on a state-level factor.

Inflation Indexing Requires Consistent Application

Whatever index value is used, it is vital that it be employed consistently. For example, if inflation has been 2 percent, then all brackets should be increased by two percent: not some by 2 percent and others by some other rate, either lower or higher. Crucially, “same dollar” indexing strategies fail this test. Indexing a $1,000, $10,000, and $100,000 bracket by $50 each is a radically different percent change for each bracket, and leads to different taxpayers having very different experiences in changing tax burdens.

If inflation indexing is carried out inconsistently then the full benefits of indexing will not be realized. Allowing some brackets to adjust at rates faster or slower than inflation preserves the unfairness and instability of an un-indexed system for taxpayers in those brackets.

Inflation indexing adjusts a state’s income tax code and reduces the need for regular legislative fine-tuning. Its main benefits manifest over many years, or even decades. For this reason, it is vital that inflation indexing be carried out year after year, without interruptions or suspensions, which undermine the stability of expectations regarding future real tax payments, and vitiate the beneficial effects of keeping taxes proportionate to taxpayers’ ability to pay.


Inflation indexing is a key reform vital to any tax modernization effort. It enables taxpayers to have greater confidence about future tax liabilities, and prevents un-transparent tax hikes on people whose incomes haven’t increased in real terms. Inflation indexing is especially important in states with many tax brackets on low-income taxpayers, who bear an especially heavy burden from “bracket creep.” With the consistent application of inflation indexing, policymakers can position their individual income taxAn individual income tax (or personal income tax) is levied on the wages, salaries, investments, or other forms of income an individual or household earns. The U.S. imposes a progressive income tax where rates increase with income. The Federal Income Tax was established in 1913 with the ratification of the 16th Amendment. Though barely 100 years old, individual income taxes are the largest source of tax revenue in the U.S. code to be more neutral, stable, and transparent for all taxpayers.