Taxes: The Price We Pay for Government

What You’ll Learn

  1. Learn about the different tax types governments rely on to fund priorities like infrastructure, national defense, and social insurance programs and the share of total revenue each tax type generates.
  2. See how the U.S. federal government raises revenue, as well as state and local governments, and compare taxes in the U.S. to those around the world.
  3. Learn about the central role businesses play in the tax collection process.

Introduction

Have you ever wondered where the money comes from to build roads, maintain a national defense, or pay for programs like Social Security? Taxes.

Businesses, like your local convenience store, cover the cost of expenses like employee salaries and rent from the profits generated by selling products. Governments don’t sell products and don’t have profits so the only way they can cover the cost of their services is by asking us to pay taxes on the money we earn, the things we buy, and the property we own.

Different states and countries rely on different combinations of taxes to pay for government services depending on their unique economic situations and policy goals. Some principles, however, are true across the board.

A good rule of thumb is that the most efficient way to raise revenue is by placing a low tax on a broad, stable tax base. In other words, taxes should apply to a wide range of economic activity with few exceptions.

However, different types of taxes impact people, businesses, and the economy differently. As we’ll see below, most economists also agree that taxes on income create more economic harm than taxes on consumption and property.

Sources of Government Revenue in the United States

How Much Tax Revenue is Raised in the U.S.?

The U.S. federal government collected $3.33 trillion in total tax revenue in 2018. Meanwhile, state governments collected a total of $1.04 trillion and local governments collected $0.44 trillion. Altogether, that means $4.81 trillion in tax revenues was collected in the U.S in 2018.

How much revenue governments raise is important, but it’s also crucial to ask how they do so.

As you’ll see below, the federal government raises revenue differently than the states, and state and local governments all raise revenue differently as well.

You might ask why it’s all so complicated—can’t every level of government just raise revenue the same way? But remember: no two governments are the same. They all have different economies, different constituents, and different priorities, so it makes sense that their taxes are different too.

How much tax revenue is raised in the U.S. sources of government revenue in the United States, tax government revenue

Federal Revenue

In the United States, individual income taxes are the primary source of tax revenue when looking at all local, state, and federal tax collections combined.

Social insurance taxes like payroll taxes make up the second-largest share of revenue, followed by consumption taxes, property taxes, and corporate income taxes.

Sources of Tax Revenue in the United States, tax government revenue, sources of government revenue in the United States

State and Local Tax Revenue

The exact mix of taxes used to raise revenue among U.S. states and localities varies greatly, though the majority of revenue comes from four primary sources: property taxes, sales taxes, individual income taxes, and corporate income taxes.

Other taxes used to raise state and local revenue include excise taxes, such as those on alcohol, tobacco, or motor fuel; estate taxes; and severance taxes, which are imposed on the extraction of non-renewable natural resources, such as crude oil.

As you can see in the table below, some states forgo major tax types, such as Florida, which collects no individual income tax, or New Hampshire, which collects no sales tax.

Given the proximity of states, the decision whether to impose certain taxes and the level at which those taxes are imposed can have significant effects on where businesses and individuals choose to locate.

Sources of State & Local Tax Collections, Percentage of Total from Each Source, Fiscal Year 2017
State Property General Sales Individual Income  Corporate Income Other Taxes (a)
Alabama 17.3% 30.8% 22.8% 3.2% 25.9%
Alaska 51.8% 7.7% 2.9% 37.6%
Arizona 31.7% 39.5% 14.1% 1.5% 13.3%
Arkansas 18.5% 37.8% 23.0% 3.3% 17.4%
California 26.0% 20.2% 34.6% 4.2% 15.0%
Colorado 31.6% 27.4% 24.8% 1.9% 14.3%
Connecticut 39.5% 15.5% 29.2% 3.3% 12.5%
Delaware 18.9% 26.5% 5.4% 49.2%
Florida 36.4% 36.2% 3.1% 24.2%
Georgia 31.0% 23.9% 28.2% 2.5% 14.4%
Hawaii 18.6% 36.6% 22.2% 2.0% 20.7%
Idaho 27.4% 25.9% 26.0% 3.4% 17.2%
Illinois 38.8% 19.6% 18.0% 3.9% 19.7%
Indiana 26.7% 29.1% 23.4% 4.0% 16.8%
Iowa 32.7% 22.6% 24.0% 2.8% 18.0%
Kansas 33.4% 31.8% 17.2% 2.9% 14.7%
Kentucky 21.3% 20.1% 33.7% 3.7% 21.1%
Louisiana 20.8% 42.8% 14.6% 1.4% 20.4%
Maine 40.3% 20.4% 21.7% 2.5% 15.1%
Maryland 25.8% 12.1% 37.9% 2.6% 21.5%
Massachusetts 37.1% 13.9% 32.7% 4.9% 11.5%
Michigan 33.8% 22.1% 24.0% 2.9% 17.3%
Minnesota 25.9% 17.8% 31.9% 3.6% 20.9%
Mississippi 27.7% 32.1% 16.7% 3.7% 19.9%
Missouri 27.2% 27.4% 28.1% 1.6% 15.6%
Montana 40.4% 28.8% 3.1% 27.7%
Nebraska 38.2% 22.8% 22.7% 2.7% 13.6%
Nevada 22.5% 41.1% 36.4%
New Hampshire 67.6% 1.0% 8.7% 22.8%
New Jersey 46.9% 15.5% 22.5% 3.4% 11.7%
New Mexico 19.2% 39.0% 15.5% 1.1% 25.2%
New York 32.0% 17.1% 31.7% 6.0% 13.2%
North Carolina 24.6% 25.9% 29.7% 1.9% 17.9%
North Dakota 24.8% 22.1% 6.3% 1.2% 45.5%
Ohio 28.1% 28.6% 25.8% 0.4% 17.2%
Oklahoma 20.6% 33.5% 22.4% 1.1% 22.4%
Oregon 31.4% 42.7% 3.7% 22.2%
Pennsylvania 29.6% 17.3% 25.9% 4.3% 22.9%
Rhode Island 43.3% 17.0% 21.1% 2.2% 16.5%
South Carolina 34.1% 21.6% 23.4% 2.1% 18.8%
South Dakota 38.0% 38.7% 0.8% 22.5%
Tennessee 25.7% 40.9% 1.1% 7.6% 24.7%
Texas 45.0% 34.3% 20.7%
Utah 25.5% 26.4% 28.7% 2.6% 16.8%
Vermont 44.2% 10.4% 19.7% 2.2% 23.6%
Virginia 34.4% 13.4% 32.1% 2.0% 18.0%
Washington 28.0% 46.4% 25.6%
West Virginia 24.0% 19.2% 25.2% 1.6% 30.0%
Wisconsin 33.8% 19.8% 27.5% 3.4% 15.5%
Wyoming 44.5% 23.8% 31.8%
District of Columbia 32.6% 18.4% 26.3% 7.4% 15.3%
(a) “Other Taxes” include excise taxes (such as those on alcohol, tobacco, motor vehicles, utilities, and licenses), severance taxes, stock transfer taxes, estate and gift taxes, and other miscellaneous taxes.
Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, “Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances”; Tax Foundation calculations.

How Does the U.S. Compare to the Rest of the World?

In many ways, the United States is unique in the way it raises revenue. One important difference is that it relies significantly more on individual income taxes compared to other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 36 countries with advanced economies.

The United States also relies much less on consumption taxes. This is because all OECD countries except the United States levy a value-added tax (VAT) at a relatively high rate. State and local sales tax rates in the United States are low by comparison.

In fact, OECD countries raise about one-third of their total tax revenue with consumption taxes such as the VAT, making consumption taxes the largest revenue source on average.

Sources of Tax Revenue in the United States Compared to the OECD Average, 2018

Social insurance taxes followed by individual income taxes are the second and third most important sources of tax revenue in the OECD. Countries collect very little from corporate income taxes and property taxes on average.

OECD Average Sources of Tax Revenue 2018

Since 1990, there has been a noticeable shift among OECD countries away from individual income taxes and towards social insurance and consumption taxes. Revenue from corporate income taxes has also increased slightly.

OECD Tax Revenue Sources 2018 and 1990

When looking at sources of tax revenue by region, including non-OECD countries, there is great variation reflective of economic and social differences across regions.

Sources of Tax Revenue by Region or Group 2018

Businesses: Government’s Biggest Tax Collector

When people think about paying their taxes, they likely think of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). But the days of the tax collector going door-to-door to fill the government coffers are long gone. In fact, the primary collectors of taxes, and certainly payers of taxes, are businesses.

Businesses are absolutely essential to the tax collection process. You would literally need millions of federal, state, and local tax agents to do what businesses do for governments every day.

In addition to the numerous taxes they pay—such as income taxes and property taxes—businesses collect taxes for the government in three main ways:

  • Withholding taxes on labor and capital income—this is what comes out of your paycheck if you’re a salaried employee
  • Remitting the employee-share of social insurance taxes—what you contribute to fund safety-net programs like Social Security in the United Sates
  • Sales and value-added taxes (VATs)—the taxes you see on a receipt after purchasing a good or service

The U.S. is one of the most “business dependent” tax systems in the industrialized world. In 2014, U.S. businesses paid about 29 percent of all taxes collected in the country and remitted another 64 percent—adding up to 93 percent of all taxes collected in America that year.

Businesses Are Central to US Tax Collections

Was this page helpful to you?

No

Thank You!

The Tax Foundation works hard to provide insightful tax policy analysis. Our work depends on support from members of the public like you. Would you consider contributing to our work?

Contribute to the Tax Foundation