Tax Code May Be the Most Progressive Since 1979
WASHINGTON — With 2013 bringing tax increases on the incomes of a small sliver of the richest Americans, the country's top earners now face a heavier tax burden than at any time since Jimmy Carter was president.
The last-minute deal struck by the departing 112th Congress raised taxes on a handful of the highest-earning Americans, with about 99.3 percent of households experiencing no change in their income taxes. But the Tax Policy Center estimates that the average family in the top 1 percent will pay a federal tax rate of more than 36 percent this year, up from 28 percent in 2008. That is the highest rate since 1979, at least.
By some measures, the tax code might now be the most progressive in a generation, tax economists said, while noting that every American is paying a lower burden currently than they did then. In fact, the total federal tax rate is still vastly lower for the very rich than it was at any point in the 1940s through 1970s. It has risen from historical lows, but is still closer to those lows than where it was in the postwar decades.
"We made the system more progressive by raising rates at the top and leaving them for everyone else," said Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center, a research group based in Washington. "The offsetting issue is that the rich have gotten a lot richer."
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Indeed, over the last three decades the bulk of pretax income gains have gone to the wealthy — and the higher up on the income scale, the bigger the gains, with billionaires outpacing millionaires who outpaced the merely rich. Economists doubted that the tax increases would do much to reverse that trend.
With the recovery failing to improve incomes for millions of average Americans and the country running trillion-dollar deficits, President Obama made "tax fairness" a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. In the heated negotiations with House Speaker John A. Boehner, that translated into the White House's insistence on tax increases for the top 2 percent of households and a continuation of tax breaks and cuts for a vast number of taxpayers.
Republicans resisted increasing tax rates and aimed for lower revenue targets, arguing that spending was the budget's primary problem and that no American should see his or her taxes go up too much in such a sluggish economy. But ultimately they relented, and Congress cut a last-minute deal.
"A central promise of my campaign for president was to change the tax code that was too skewed towards the wealthy at the expense of working middle-class Americans," Mr. Obama said after Congress reached an agreement.
That deal includes a host of tax increases on the rich. It raises the tax rate to 39.6 percent from 35 percent on income above $400,000 for individuals, and $450,000 for couples. The rate on dividends and capital gains for those same taxpayers was bumped up 5 percentage points, to 20 percent. Congress also reinstated limits on the amount households with more than $300,000 in income can deduct. On top of that, two new surcharges — a 3.8 percent tax on investment income and a 0.9 percent tax on regular income — hit those same wealthy households.
As a result of the taxes added in both the deal and the 2010 health care law, which came into effect this year, taxpayers with $1 million in income and up will pay on average $168,000 more in taxes. Millionaires' share of the overall federal tax burden will climb to 23 percent from 20 percent.
The result is a tax code that squeezes hundreds of billions of dollars more from the very well off — about $600 billion more over 10 years — while leaving the tax burden on everyone else mostly as it was. And the changes come after 30 years of both Republican and Democratic administrations doing the converse: zeroing out federal income taxes for many poor working families while also reducing the tax burden for households on the higher end of the income scale.
"Back at the end of the Carter and beginning of the Reagan administrations, we had a pretty severe income-tax burden for people at a low level of income. It was actually kind of appalling," said Alan D. Viard, a tax expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center research group in Washington. "Policy makers in both parties realized that was bad policy and started whittling away at it" by expanding credits and tinkering with tax rates.
After those changes and the new law, comparing average tax rates for poor households and wealthy households, 2013 might be the most progressive tax code since 1979. But economists cautioned that measuring progressivity is tricky. "It's not like there is some scientific measure of progressivity all economists agreed upon," said Leonard E. Burman, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University. "People look at different numerical measures and they've changed in different ways at different income levels."
Mr. Viard said that over time the code had become markedly more progressive for the poor compared with the middle class. But it arguably did not become much more progressive for the rich compared with the middle class, or the very rich compared with the rich, in part because of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts on investment income.
An anesthesiologist who earns a $500,000 salary subject to payroll and income taxes might pay a higher tax rate than a hedge fund manager making $1 billion subject mostly to capital-gains taxes, for instance.
Economists are also divided on the ultimate effect of those tax increases on the wealthy to income growth and income inequality in the United States. The recession hit the incomes of the rich hard, but they have snapped back much more strongly than those for middle or low-income workers.
"I'd still rather be really rich, even if I'm getting taxed much more than a low-income person" would be, Mr. Williams of the Tax Policy Center added.