Millennials Pay Very Little in Income Taxes

December 3, 2015

Almost every day, I see another article about millennials – the cohort of Americans born between 1980 and 2000 that are “forging a distinct path into adulthood” and “reshaping America.”

But surprisingly, not much has been written about millennials and U.S. tax policy. There are all sorts of interesting questions to ask – which deductions and credits do millennials claim? How do they earn their taxable income? But for this post, I’ll focus on one important question: how much do millennials pay in income taxes?

To answer this question, we can turn to the IRS Statistics of Income Division, which publishes a few tables that break down taxpayer data by age. For tax returns filed in 2013, the IRS provides statistics about taxpayers between 18 and 25 and between 26 and 34. This gives us a snapshot of taxpayers born between 1979 and 1995 – not a perfect definition of millennials, but close enough for our purposes.

Characteristics of Taxpayers from 18 to 34 Years Old, 2013
Source: IRS Statistics of Income Tables 1.5 and 3.7. “Income Taxes Paid” refers to total tax liability minus the refundable portion of refundable credits.

Age Group

Share of Tax Returns

Share of Income (AGI)

Share of Income Taxes Paid

18 to 25

15.74%

4.23%

0.64%

26 to 34

17.86%

12.72%

7.02%

All Millennials

33.61%

16.94%

7.67%

The first thing we learn from the IRS data is that millennials account for one out of every three tax returns. In 2013, Americans between 18 and 34 years old filed 33.61 percent of all returns.[1]

However, millennials earned a much smaller share of total income reported on tax returns. In 2013, millennials reported 16.94 percent of overall adjusted gross income (AGI). This gap is particularly noticeable for taxpayers between 18 and 25, who filed 15.74 percent of all returns but only earned 4.23 percent of all income. Many of these individuals likely spent time pursuing higher education rather than earning money, leading to their low income levels.

Finally, millennials paid a very small share of all income taxes in 2013. Millennials accounted for 7.67 percent of all taxes paid, and those between 18 and 25 only paid 0.64 percent of all taxes. This is because the U.S. income tax system is designed to levy lower tax rates on Americans with lower incomes; because millennials have lower incomes than average, they face an even lower tax burden. Overall, millennials paid $92.4 billion in taxes in 2013.

All of these figures matter – because when we talk about low-income Americans, we’re often talking about millennials. Out of all tax returns filed in 2013 with incomes between $1 and $25,000, a whopping 50.78 percent were filed by taxpayers between 18 and 34 years old.

These statistics are important for lawmakers that are designing policies aimed at low-income Americans. When politicians discuss the standard deduction and the Earned Income Tax Credit, they should keep in mind that these policies disproportionately benefit young taxpayers.

These figures also give context to discussions of inequality. Because incomes tend to rise with age, some of the poorest Americans today will be among the richest in twenty years. As a result, many commonly-cited statistics about inequality are skewed by age. Imagine a perfectly equal society, where every individual earned the same income over the course of a lifetime. Using standard measures of inequality, this society would still look very unequal at any given point in time, because its younger members earn much less than older ones.

There’s a lot more to be gleaned from the IRS data about millennials, but we’ll leave it at this for today: millennials file 1 out of every 3 tax returns, earn 1 out of every 6 dollars in income, and pay 1 out of every 13 dollars in taxes.

For more charts like these, check out Income Taxes Illustrated.



[1] When we examine the share of individuals filing taxes, rather than the share of returns filed, we get a slightly smaller number: Americans under 35 accounted for 29.61% of all individuals filing taxes (Table 1.6). This discrepancy stems from the fact that older taxpayers are more likely to be married and file jointly than younger taxpayers. So, older taxpayer file fewer returns per individual, on average, than younger taxpayers; therefore, younger taxpayers are over-represented when it comes to the share of returns filed.


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