One of the most hotly debated issues of our time is the fairness of our federal tax system. But too often, discussions are clouded and confused because they focus on only one part of our federal tax system — usually the individual income tax — and ignore the fact that Americans pay many other taxes, such as the payroll tax, the corporate income tax, and the estate tax. To assess whether the tax system is fair or not, it is important to look at all of the taxes that people pay, not one particular form of taxation.
Using this broader approach dispels two misconceptions that have emerged in recent debates about our tax system. The first misconception is that "nearly half of taxpayers pay no federal tax." While it is true that many people pay no individual income tax, even those who do not pay income taxes pay payroll taxes if they are working. In fact, taxpayers with the bottom 90 percent of incomes pay, on average, more in payroll taxes than in income tax. The second misconception is that high-income Americans face low overall tax rates because they receive most of their income from tax-favored capital gains and dividends instead of wages and salaries. That conclusion, however, does not account for the fact that high-income taxpayers bear a disproportionate share of the corporate income tax, which significantly raises their overall effective tax rates.
To illustrate these points, the analysis below focuses on the aggregate tax rates borne by taxpayers with different levels of income and takes account of the major taxes imposed by the federal government: the individual income tax, the payroll tax, the corporate tax, and the estate tax. The data behind the analysis come from the non-partisan and independent Tax Policy Center.
Looking first at individual income taxes alone, the chart below shows effective tax rates based on income level. Effective tax rates include the statutory tax rate as well as the various tax deductions, exclusions, and credits that reduce taxpayers’ liabilities. (Please see the Appendix for tables showing the statutory income and payroll tax rates.)
The individual income tax is structured to be progressive in the sense that the effective tax rate increases as income rises. In 2014, the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers face an average tax rate of -4.5 percent, which is essentially a tax subsidy.1 The top 1 percent of taxpayers face an average tax rate of 24.6 percent. However, within each of these categories there is variation among individuals, and it is true that some taxpayers with extremely high incomes face lower effective rates because much of their income comes from tax-favored capital gains and dividends.
As stated above, however, one must look at more than just individual income taxes to fully understand our tax system. One of the most significant taxes for a majority of Americans is the payroll tax, which helps to finance Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits. The chart below adds payroll taxes to the income taxes in the prior chart.
After combining payroll and income tax rates together, the distribution of the tax burden shown is less progressive.2 As the effective tax rates at the bottom of the income distribution appear significantly higher, the effective rate for the very top 0.1 percent of taxpayers increases by only 1.4 percentage points largely because the payroll tax for Social Security does not apply to wages above a certain threshold, which is $117,000 in 2014.
However, this is still not the complete picture because one should also include two other significant sources of revenue for the federal government: the corporate income tax and the estate tax. The estate tax does not apply to estates below $5,340,000 for 2014, and therefore impacts the wealthiest Americans, who are at the high end of the income distribution. Determining who pays the corporate income tax, however, is much more difficult. There is a range of evidence on the question of how much of the corporate income tax is borne by investors, by which types of investors, and how much is borne by workers and consumers. Based on the weight of the evidence, the Tax Policy Center has chosen to allocate 60 percent of the burden of the corporate income tax to shareholders of companies; 20 percent to all capital owners; and 20 percent to labor. This methodology is similar to that employed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Congressional Budget Office.
Using this methodology, the following chart shows the combined effect of individual income, payroll, estate, and corporate income taxes (again, building on the previous charts):
Overall, in the aggregate, our federal tax system is structured to be generally progressive, with higher-income taxpayers paying a larger share of their income in taxes. However, the composition of the type of taxes paid is very different for taxpayers at different ends of the income distribution. For low-income Americans, the payroll tax is the dominant tax; for high-income Americans, individual and corporate income taxes comprise most of their tax burden.
Our current tax system is broken in many respects. Altogether, the current federal income tax code, tax regulations, and explanations add up to more than 70,000 pages. Our tax laws are unnecessarily complex and loaded with numerous deductions, exemptions, credits, preferential rates, and other loopholes that distort economic decision-making and hurt our economy. There is a wide array of viewpoints on how best to fix our broken tax system, and how the tax burden should be distributed among various taxpayers. But whatever one’s views may be, it is important to look at the existing tax system in the aggregate, so that reforms can be discussed and debated with a fuller understanding of its current impact.
The following three tables provide additional detail about the actual current tax rates under the individual income tax system, the corporate income tax system, and the payroll tax. A central concept in any tax system is the marginal tax rate, which is the tax rate that applies to the last dollar of taxable income. Under the U.S. individual tax system, the marginal rate rises with higher income.
|Taxable Income||Marginal Tax Rate||Income Tax Owed|
|More than||But not more than|
|$0||$18,150||10%||10% of taxable income|
15% of taxable income over $18,150
25% of taxable income over $73,800
28% of taxable income over $148,850
33% of taxable income over $226,850
35% of taxable income above $405,100
39.6% of taxable income over $457,600
Please note that the table above includes information only for married couples filing jointly — there are different tax rate schedules for singles, heads of households, and married filing separately (for more information about those tax schedules, see the complete individual income tax parameters).
|Taxable Income||Marginal Tax Rate||Income Tax Owed|
|More than||But not more than|
|$0||$50,000||15%||15% of taxable income|
25% of taxable income over $50,000
34% of taxable income over $75,000
35% of taxable income over $10,000,000
|Taxable Wage Income||Paid by Employer||Paid by Employee||Total Rate|
|Social Security||For 2014: Up to $117,000||6.2%||6.2%||12.4%|
|Unemployment||Up to $7,000||0.6%||n.a.||0.6%**|
Please note that this report does not include analysis on federal excise taxes on products like gasoline, diesel fuel, tobacco products, airline tickets, and alcohol, nor does it include state and local income, property, or excise taxes. Assigning these taxes by income level is extremely difficult and uncertain, and would also result in differences from state to state, and even county to county. Overall, including these taxes would most likely flatten the progressivity of the tax system somewhat (because they disproportionately impact lower-income taxpayers, in general), but it would not fundamentally alter the information provided in this report. 3
1These effective tax rates are negative because tax credits are greater than the tax liabilities for this group and these credits can be refunded even if the taxpayer pays no tax. (Back to citation)
2These calculations include both the employee and the employer portion of the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare’s Hospital Insurance (HI) program, self-employment taxes, and the additional HI tax implemented by the Affordable Care Act. (Back to citation)
3Congressional Budget Office, Historical Effective Tax Rates, 1979 to 2005, December 2007. (Back to citation)