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Gird Your Loins: How the 'Cliff' Will Hit You

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Some lawmakers are back in Washington hoping to hammer out a last-minute deal to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," but so far it seems that there's more name-calling than deal-making going on.

If no deal is ever reached, it will be more than just a political headache. Americans also could feel considerable pocketbook pain as taxes rise, unemployment benefits are cut off, and an array of smaller changes take effect.

The cumulative effect on Americans' wallets could be enough to dent significantly the already weak economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the combination of tax increases and spending cuts could be enough to send the nation back into recession.

(Read More: How No 'Cliff' Deal Will Hammer the Middle Class)

That's the worst-case scenario, and despite the considerable gridlock, most experts expect that Congress and the president will eventually come to some sort of deal. Experts also say that even if no deal is reached by Jan. 1, retroactive fixes and other deal-making could prevent the most harmful effects from ever hitting most Americans.

Still, the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, says that nearly 90 percent of households would be affected if we go over the fiscal cliff completely and no deal is reached.

A stalemate would have very specific effects on certain groups of taxpayers, such as students, parents and married couples who have benefited over the past decade from certain tax law changes passed under the Bush and Obama administrations.

But the Tax Policy Center says that on average, taxes would go up for every income group, from the poorest taxpayers to the most wealthy:

  • Americans in the lowest 20 percent of the income scale could pay an average of about $400 more in taxes.
  • Middle-income households could pay about $2,000 more in taxes, on average.
  • The top 20 percent of taxpayers could pay about $14,000 more a year in taxes, on average.
  • The 1 percenters could pay an average of $120,000 more in taxes.

Here's a look at some of the biggest issues likely to affect the largest groups of taxpayers if Congress cannot make a deal.

Tax rates will go up: If no deal is made, taxpayers can expect their tax rate to rise no matter what income group they fall in, said Roberton Williams, senior fellow with the Tax Policy Institute. That's because previously passed rate cuts would expire.

"Everyone who has taxable income will see a tax increase because of the rates," Williams said.

Payroll taxes: For the past two years, the employee's share of taxes paid for Social Security has been set at 4.2 percent instead of the previous level of 6.2 percent. That temporary tax cut would expire without a new deal, meaning almost everyone's taxes would rise by 2 percentage points.

Translation: Your paycheck would be a little bit smaller.

"That's the thing that people will see first," Williams said.

Alternative Minimum Tax: The Alternative Minimum Tax was originally designed so that wealthy taxpayers would be forced to pay a minimum level of taxes no matter what. But because it was not created to account for inflation, over the years it has threatened to affect an ever-bigger group of people.

Congress has previously passed temporary "patches" to keep lower-income households from having to pay more taxes. If no deal is reached this year, the latest patch would expire, and the Internal Revenue Service says around 30 million additional taxpayers would become subject to the AMT.

Of course, every taxpayer's individual circumstances are different. To see how your family's tax rates could be affected, you can check out the Tax Policy Center's individualized tax calculator.

Taxes aren't the only pocketbook problem Americans could face if a deal isn't reached, because so much government spending is tied up in reaching a deal. But the most widespread effect would probably be on people who have been unemployed for a long time.

Unemployment benefits: About 2.1 million unemployed Americans are scheduled to lose federally funded unemployment compensation if Congress can't reach a deal to extend the benefits plan by the end of the year. President Obama has said he'd like to see those benefits extended as part of a fiscal cliff deal.

The federally funded unemployment benefit extensions were introduced in 2008 while the country was in the depths of the recession. The extended benefits kick in after an unemployed person has exhausted his or her 26 weeks of state benefits. The exact amount of additional compensation depends on the unemployment rate in the person's home state.

The unemployment rate has fallen sharply in recent months, but long-term unemployment remains a major problem. About 4.8 million people, or 40 percent of the total number of people who were unemployed in November, had been jobless for 27 weeks or more.

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