The Myth of the Poor Paying No Federal Taxes

One of the dominant memes on the right at the moment is the claim that more than half of all Americans pay no federal taxes. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts that myth to rest decisively. First, it notes that the figures come from a year when the recession had dramatically lowered incomes:

The 51 percent figure is an anomaly that reflects the unique circumstances of 2009, when the recession greatly swelled the number of Americans with low incomes and when temporary tax cuts created by the 2009 Recovery Act — including the “Making Work Pay” tax credit and an exclusion from tax of the first $2,400 in unemployment benefits — were in effect. Together, these developments removed millions of Americans from the federal income tax rolls. Both of these temporary tax measures have since expired.

In a more typical year, 35 percent to 40 percent of households owe no federal income tax. In 2007, the figure was 37.9 percent.

Second, the claim only includes federal income taxes, ignoring federal payroll taxes:

The 51 percent figure covers only the federal income tax and ignores the substantial amounts of other federal taxes — especially the payroll tax — that many of these households pay . As a result, it greatly overstates the share of households that do not pay any federal taxes. Data from the Urban Institute-Brookings Tax Policy Center show only about 14 percent of households paid neither federal income tax nor payroll tax in 2009, despite the high unemployment and temporary tax cuts that marked that year.

And it also doesn’t include other federal taxes, like excise taxes on gasoline. CBPP also looks at who makes up the group that pays no federal income taxes and they are either students, people on social security, the unemployed or the working poor who still pay payroll taxes.

More importantly, it ignores the fact that taxes at the state and local level are strongly regressive. Those with lower incomes pay a far higher percentage of their income in state and local taxes than the wealthy do. In fact, there are in reverse proportion at every level — the lowest 20 percent of earners pay the highest percentage (12.3%) and each subsequent quintile pays lower percentages, with the top 1 percent paying only 7.9%.

A study by the group United for a Fair Economy, in fact, found that if this system were inverted — if the top earners paid 12.3% and the bottom earners paid 7.9% — it would add around $40 billion to state revenues, which would all but erase the systemic budget problems that have plagued most states in recent years. And it would also be more fair.

The CBPP also points out that an almost identical reality exists when it comes to corporate income taxes, yet you don’t hear conservatives screaming about how unfair that is.

As this report notes, in addition to paying other taxes each year (many of which involve significant tax burdens), most people who do not pay federal income tax in a given year do pay that tax over time. For example, more than half of the tax filers who received the EITC between 1989 and 2006 received the credit for no more than a year or two at a time and generally paid substantial amounts of federal income tax in other years.* In fact, the taxpayers who claimed the EITC during this 18-year period paid $473 billion in net federal income tax over that period (in 2006 dollars) even after taking the EITC payments they received into account.

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