President Biden releases his fiscal 2024 budget next week and said he will again propose a tax increase this week so that everyone pays their “fair share.” That makes this a good time to look again at who pays what in income taxes compared to their actual income.
The Internal Revenue Service recently released its income and tax statistics for 2020, and they show that the top 1% of wage earners paid 42.3% of the country’s income taxes. That’s a two-decade high in the share of taxes paid by the 1%.
That same 1% reported earnings of 22.2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) on their tax returns, meaning the share of taxes paid by the top 1% as a group is roughly double their share of income. Whatever you say about the current tax code, there is no denying that it is very progressive.
The nearby bar chart is based on a Tax Foundation analysis of 2020 IRS data. Note that the top 5% of earners reported 38.1% of total AGI, but paid 62.7% of all income taxes. The bottom 50% of wage earners reported 10.2% of AGI but paid 2.3% of all income taxes.
Mr. Biden likes to take the example of the rare billionaire who might pay a small amount of tax in any given year. But taken together, the top 1% in 2020 earned at least about $550,000 and paid an average income tax rate of 26%. Those who earned more than $220,000 but less than $550,000 paid an average rate of 17.5%. For those in the next group, above $150,000, it is 13.1%. Above $85,000, 9.5%. Above $42,000, 6.5%. And the bottom 50% of taxpayers, those under $42,000, paid an average rate of 3.1%.
This shouldn’t be news to anyone paying attention, but it’s worth noting the yawning gap between reality, as reflected in the data, and positions in Washington on the tax-evading rich. Despite the President’s demagogy, millionaires and billionaires do not pay less than their secretaries.
By the way, the trend over the past two decades is that the income tax burden has shifted even more to higher earners. The nearby line chart captures the trend. In 2001, the top 1% contributed 33.2% of income tax revenue, nine points less than in 2020. The tax reform of Paul Ryan and Donald Trump in 2017 did little to change the trend despite Democratic claims that he favored the wealthy.
The next income group, those in the top 1% to the top 5%, have also been footing a larger share of the bill, 20.4% in 2020 versus 19% in 2001. Meanwhile, the share of taxes on the rent paid by people with lower incomes has been going down. The bottom 50% of Americans in 2001 provided 4.9% of income. As of 2020 it was 2.3%. The next income group, between the top 25% and bottom 50%, contributed 13.5% of income tax, which has dropped to 9.2%.
What about people with incomes in the top 10% to 25%? They have dropped from 17.9% of the tax to 14.8%. That group in 2020 covered people who had adjusted gross incomes up to around $150,000, so this is a story that includes the middle class.
These figures are for income tax only, so they do not include payroll taxes or excise taxes on gasoline and other goods, both of which are less progressive. But income taxes contribute half of all federal income (and about another third is Social Security and Medicare, which are ostensibly “earned” benefits), so this paints a fair picture of the tax burden. The basic truth is that the rich really do pay their fair share and fund a huge chunk of government.
Mr. Biden and the Democrats want to maintain the illusion that the rich avoid taxes because their appetite to spend is insatiable. Federal revenue last year came in at 19.6% of GDP, a level reached only three times before. It doesn’t matter, Mr. Biden always wants more of his money.
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It appeared in the print issue of March 4, 2023.