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Some Historical Tax Stats

By: Nick Kasprak

The IRS’s Statistics of Income Division is a gold mine of data for serious 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. wonks. One lesser-known product the IRS puts out every year is the public use microdata file – for a (not so) small fee, you get a sample of hundreds of thousands of tax returns that you can slice and dice any way you want. (The data is statistically blurred in such a way so as to prevent the identification of any individual taxpayer.)

I recently looked through some IRS microdata from the year 1960, and stumbled across the following interesting facts:

  • In 1960, the top 1% of households earned 9% of all income, and paid 13% of all taxes. (In 2008, the top 1% earned 20% of all income, and paid 38% of all taxes.)
  • The top marginal tax rateThe marginal tax rate is the amount of additional tax paid for every additional dollar earned as income. The average tax rate is the total tax paid divided by total income earned. A 10 percent marginal tax rate means that 10 cents of every next dollar earned would be taken as tax. in 1960 was 91%, which applied to income over $200,000 (for single filers) or $400,000 (for married filers) – thresholds which correspond to approximately $1.5 million and $3 million, respectively, in today’s dollars. Approximately 0.00235% of households had income taxed at the top rate.
  • A taxpayer at the very bottom of the top 1% (in other words, one who is right on the boundary between the 98th and 99th percentiles) had a nominal income of $24,435, or about $190,000 in today’s dollars. (In 2008, this figure was nominally $380,354, or $400,000 in current dollars.)