BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The Myth of the Non-Paying 47 Percent
These are tough times, especially for low- and moderate-income families. For much of 2011, the unemployment rate exceeded 9 percent, and was higher among those without a college education. Last year, 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty, up from 12 percent before the recession. Meanwhile, the median income of working-age households fell sharply for the third year in a row. And that decline came on top of more than three decades of sluggish growth for all but the highest earners.
Yet to hear some people tell it, one of the major problems facing America is that the bottom half of U.S. families is getting off too easy. Every major candidate in the Republican presidential race, along with the Republican congressional leadership, has expressed outrage over the fact that 47 percent of households didn’t owe any federal income tax in 2009. …
But the picture changes dramatically once other federal taxes are included. When all federal taxes are taken into account, even the lowest fifth of households (with average incomes of about $18,000) pay 4 percent of income in federal taxes, while the second-lowest fifth (average income: $43,000) pay 11 percent. . . .
State and local tax systems are typically quite regressive, meaning that low-income families pay more of their income in taxes than higher-income families. When state and local taxes are taken into account along with federal taxes, the poorest fifth of households pays about 15 percent of income in taxes; the next fifth pays about 21 percent.
These figures give the lie to the idea that there is a large class of Americans who “don’t pay taxes.” To the contrary, they show that the federal income tax is one of the few taxes that doesn’t impose higher burdens on low- and moderate-income households than on upper income ones. The overall U.S. tax system is progressive only because the federal income tax is very progressive. Put differently, we’ve chosen to concentrate almost all of the system’s progressivity in the Federal income tax. . . .
Ultimately, the 47 percent statistic is just a distraction from important policy choices. We can close future deficits through spending cuts or tax increases, or a combination of the two. We can split the burden in myriad ways. And what you take to be the fair approach logically depends on your views on a variety of issues. But it doesn’t depend on how many people fall on one or the other side of zero liability when they fill out their federal income tax returns.