THE WEALTHY PAY A LOWER TAX RATE THAN YOU DO

It’s now official: the 400 wealthiest Americans pay taxes at a lower rate than everyone else, thanks to tax cuts, loopholes, and lax enforcement. For the first time in history, wealthy Americans’ federal, state, and local taxes are a lower percentage of their incomes, 23%, than anyone else.

The portion of income paid in taxes by the wealthy has plummeted over the last 70 years, contributing substantially to growing income and wealth inequality. In the 1950s, wealthy Americans paid 70% of their incomes in taxes. This dropped to 47% in 1980 and then was cut in half, to 23%, by 2018. Meanwhile, middle-income households’ tax burden increased, rising from 20% to 30% and then falling back to about 25%. Low-income households experienced the largest proportional increase in their tax burden, which rose from under 20% to roughly 25%.

This animated graph dramatically illustrates how the effective tax rates experienced by all households, from the lowest income households on the left to the 400 wealthiest households on the right, have shifted from 1950 to 2018 for the aggregated total of federal, state, and local taxes. [1]

Not only have tax rates on the wealthy been cut and loopholes added, but tax enforcement has been weakened. Driven by Republicans in Congress, the enforcement budget of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has been cut by 25% (adjusted for inflation) since 2010.

Since 2010, the auditing of high-income taxpayers has declined sharply, although the audit rate for taxpayers with under $100,000 of income has remained roughly the same. In 2015, 34.7% of taxpayers with over $10 million of income were audited; in 2018, 6.7% were audited – an 80% decline. For taxpayers with between $1 million and $5 million in income, audit rates fell from 8.4% to 2.2% – a 74% decline. This reduction in audits is happening at the same time as tax avoidance schemes used by the rich, such as using overseas accounts and business entities, are proliferating. Partnerships, which are typically used by high-income individuals such as lawyers and investment managers, had an audit rate in 2017 of only 0.2%, half of what it was in 2015. [2]

Audits of low-income households that are poor enough to claim the earned income tax credit [3] account for 39% of all IRS audits. The IRS claims this is because auditing the poor is quick and easy; it can often be done by mail and by lower level employees. The IRS says this is the most efficient use of limited enforcement resources and that it can’t increase audits of higher-income taxpayers until it has the money to hire more skilled employees and have them devote the time required to do more complex audits. [4] However, audits of low-income tax returns can only yield small amounts of additional taxes when mistakes or problems are uncovered. Audits of high-income returns, on the other hand, can yield millions of dollars of additional taxes and may reveal illegal tax avoidance that has been going on for years.

The share of income paid in taxes by the wealthy has declined because politicians have cut every tax that falls more heavily on those who are well-off: income tax rates on high incomes have been cut by more than half, taxes on income from investments (i.e., wealth) have been cut, and the estate tax has been dramatically cut. The justification for this has been the supply side plutocratic economics theory that the economy as a whole, and even tax revenue, would benefit. This has been proven wrong. The wealthy – and only the wealthy – have benefited. Incomes for workers and the middle class have been stagnant since 1980 and the growth of the economy has been disappointingly slow. The American economy hasn’t done well when inequality is extremely high and rising, and tax rates on the rich are low and falling. [5]

Raising income tax rates on very high incomes, implementing a small, annual wealth tax, and increasing taxes on large estates would increase the fairness of our taxes and begin to slow or reverse growing income and wealth inequality. Moreover, this would provide the public sector with the revenue needed to make critical public investments that will actually spur economic growth.

I encourage you to contact your elected officials and candidates for office to tell them you are outraged that the wealthy pay taxes at a lower rate than you do. Tell them that it’s crystal clear that income and wealth inequality are the result of policy choices made by elected policy makers. Ask them what they will do to reduce income and wealth inequality, and to make the American tax system fair again.

[1]      Leonhardt, D., 10/6/19, “The rich really do pay lower taxes than you,” New York Times

[2]      Fleischer, V., 9/26/19, “Create a more progressive tax policy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/create-a-more-progressive-tax-policy/)

[3]      The earned income tax credit provides its greatest benefit of $6,400 to families with three or more children and incomes under $19,000. The benefit is then phased out at higher incomes and goes to zero at an income of $49,000 for a family with 3 or more children and at lower levels for smaller families.

[4]      Kiel, P., 10/2/19, “IRS: Sorry, but it’s just easier and cheaper to audit the poor,” Pro Publica (https://www.propublica.org/article/irs-sorry-but-its-just-easier-and-cheaper-to-audit-the-poor)

[5]      Leonhardt, D., 10/6/19, see above

2 comments

  1. Thanks John…another good article…!

    Tom

    “Aim High for Aphasia!”

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    1. Thanks, Tom. I take it you’re in Florida. Is that full time or just for the winter? Take care, John

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