Progressives believe the highest-income households should contribute more revenue; conservatives counter that the bottom half of earners should be paying more. When pressed about the need for revenue and shared sacrifice, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently lamented that nearly half of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes. Texas Governor Rick Perry went further, decrying this result of the tax code an “injustice.” This is a misleading grievance demonstrating a misunderstanding of the tax code: more than four in five households pay federal taxes and the role of the income tax is to adequately fund government without pushing more families into poverty.
While 46 percent of Americans won’t pay federal income taxes this year, 82 percent of households will pay federal income taxes and/or social insurance payroll taxes—predominantly Social Security and Medicare contributions. Payroll taxes are a tax on earned income and cannot be ignored because they are both regressive and substantial. Lower-income households pay higher average social insurance tax rates than upper-income households and these taxes brought in $865 billion last budget year (40 percent of all revenue).
A recent Tax Policy Center report explains that the basic structure of the tax code accounts for half of the 46 percent of households owing no income tax, while tax expenditures (preferences and credits) eliminate remaining income tax liability for the other half. The income tax code intentionally spares subsistence levels of income from taxation, hence the standard deduction ($5,800 for single filers and $11,600 for married joint filers) and personal exemption ($3,700). Of the households made nontaxable by tax expenditures, 44 percent pay no income tax because of special tax treatment for the elderly and 30 percent pay no income tax because of credits for children and poor workers.
Of the narrow 18 percent of households paying neither income nor payroll taxes, 57 percent are elderly households and 38 percent are non-elderly households with less than $20,000 in income. There simply isn’t much income here for taxes to collect: the lowest earning 20 percent of households (earning under $20,500 in 2007 dollars) received only 4 percent of pre-tax income in 2007, compared with 19 percent captured by the top 1 percent of households (earning above $352,900).
Broadening the tax base so that substantially more tax filers pay income taxes would require reducing the personal exemption, standard deduction, extra standard deduction for the elderly, exclusion of some Social Security benefits from taxation, child tax credit, or earned income tax credit. (Alternatively, higher employment and more evenly shared income gains would raise the number of households paying income taxes).
Forcing a higher tax burden on those with little to live on is a twisted concept of shared sacrifice, particularly when poverty has climbed to a 17-year high and recent income losses have been most pronounced at the bottom of the earnings distribution (see Figure H in this EPI analysis). Tax policy should instead focus on where the income gains have been concentrated over the last three decades.