Bruce Bartlett

As is the case every year, the deadline for paying one’s federal income taxes on April 15 brought forth many news features on the burden of taxation. This year was no different, with one article by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer in the Wall Street Journal getting particular attention.

Fleischer’s main point is that a growing percentage of the population is paying no federal income taxes. He said the figure is 40 percent, based on a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office showing that the bottom two income quintiles (20 percent of households) paid no federal income taxes in the aggregate in 2004. This is because the Earned Income Tax Credit offsets all of the tax liability for those who had incomes below $29,400.

Fleischer was quickly taken to task by liberals like Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute and Jonathan Chait of the New Republic for ignoring the burden of payroll taxes on those with low incomes. The same CBO data cited by Fleischer show that those in the bottom quintile paid 8.2 percent of their income in payroll taxes and the second quintile paid 9.1 percent.

This is the standard liberal response to data showing that the wealthy are shouldering a greater and greater share of the income tax burden. According to the CBO, those in the top quintile paid 85.3 percent of all such taxes in 2004. In 1979, the first year of the CBO study, this group paid only 64.9 percent.

Inclusion of payroll taxes in the calculation doesn’t change the picture that much because the top quintile of households paid 44.2 percent of all payroll taxes in 2004. Overall, this group paid 67.1 percent of all federal taxes—well above their share of reported income, which was 53.5 percent.

Of course, we have a progressive tax system and the wealthy are expected to pay more than their proportional share of taxes. The CBO data confirm that our federal tax system is indeed very progressive. Looking at all federal taxes, including payroll taxes, those in the lowest quintile paid 4.5 percent of their income to the federal government in 2004, the second quintile paid 10 percent, the third paid 13.9 percent, the fourth paid 17.2 percent, and the top quintile paid 25.1 percent.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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