On Tax Day: The Tax Debate We Need To Have
Here's a cold reality that none of the presidential candidates want to tell you: a shrinking number of Americans are bearing an ever bigger share of the nation's income tax burden. In 2005 (the most recent year for which data is available), the bottom 40% of Americans by income had, in the aggregate, an effective tax rate that's negative: their households received more money through the income tax system, largely from the earned income tax credit, than they paid.
That means that the number of people who actually pay America's income taxes - totaling almost $1 trillion in 2005 - is surprisingly small. Of those who filed returns (themselves a subset of the population), just half accounted for 97% of the Treasury's total income tax revenue (see chart above). The top half's share of total payments has been growing steadily for the past 20 years. The top 10% of taxpayers kicked in 70% of total income tax. And the famous top 1% paid almost 40% of all income tax, a proportion that has jumped dramatically since 1986.
Did Bush cut taxes for the rich? Yes. But he cut taxes for the poor even more. If we look at the measure that really matters - the change in effective tax rates - the bottom 50% got a much bigger tax cut than the top 1%. Did the dollar value of Bush's tax cuts go mostly to the wealthy? Absolutely. It could hardly be otherwise. Since the well-off pay the overwhelming majority of taxes, any tax cut with a prayer of influencing the economy would have to go mostly to them. You could completely eliminate income taxes for the bottom half of the population, and the Treasury would hardly notice.
The real issues here are clear. One is having a shrinking minority of citizens pay most of Washington's bills. Social cohesion falls apart. The majority who pay nothing resent those with higher incomes; the minority who pay heavily resent those who don't pay.