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Complaints Aside, Most Face Lower Tax Burden Than in 1980

Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff
Friday, 30 Nov 2012 | 2:06 AM ET

Alan Hicks divides long days between the insurance business he started in the late 1970s and the barbecue restaurant he opened with his sons three years ago. He earned more than $250,000 last year and said taxes took more than 40 percent. What's worse, in his view, is that others — the wealthy, hiding in loopholes; the poor, living on government benefits — are not paying their fair share.

Tetra Images | Getty Images

"It feels like the harder we work, the more they take from us," said Mr. Hicks, 55, as he waited for a meat truck one recent afternoon. "And it seems like there's an awful lot of people in the United States who don't pay any taxes."

These are common sentiments in the eastern suburbs of St. Louis, a region of fading factory towns fringed by new subdivisions. Here, as across the country, people like Mr. Hicks are pained by the conviction that they are paying ever more to finance the expansion of government.

But in fact, most Americans in 2010 paid far less in total taxes — federal, state and local — than they would have paid 30 years ago. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the combination of all income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes took a smaller share of their income than it took from households with the same inflation-adjusted income in 1980.

Households earning more than $200,000 benefited from the largest percentage declines in total taxation as a share of income. Middle-income households benefited, too. More than 85 percent of households with earnings above $25,000 paid less in total taxes than comparable households in 1980.

Lower-income households, however, saved little or nothing. Many pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay a range of other levies, like federal payroll taxes, state sales taxes and local property taxes. Only about half of taxpaying households with incomes below $25,000 paid less in 2010.

The uneven decline is a result of two trends. Congress cut federal taxation at every income level over the last 30 years. State and local taxes, meanwhile, increased for most Americans. Those taxes generally take a larger share of income from those who make less, so the increases offset more and more of the federal savings at lower levels of income.

In a half-dozen states, including Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey, the increases were large enough to offset the federal savings for most households, not just the poorer ones.

Now an era of tax cuts may be reaching its end. The federal government depends increasingly on borrowed money to pay its bills, and many state and local governments are similarly confronting the reality that they are spending more money than they collect. In Washington, debates about tax cuts have yielded to debates about who should pay more.

President Obama campaigned for re-election on a promise to take a larger share of taxable income above roughly $250,000 a year. The White House is now negotiating with Congressional Republicans, who instead want to raise some money by reducing tax deductions. Federal spending cuts also are at issue.

If a deal is not struck by year's end, a wide range of federal tax cuts passed since 2000 will expire and taxes will rise for roughly 90 percent of Americans, according to the independent Tax Policy Center. For lower-income households, taxation would spike well above 1980 levels. Upper-income households would lose some but not all of the benefits of tax cuts over the last three decades.

Public debate over taxes has typically focused on the federal income tax, but that now accounts for less than a third of the total tax revenues collected by federal, state and local governments. To analyze the total burden, The Times created a model, in consultation with experts, which estimated total tax bills for each taxpayer in each year from 1980, when the election of President Ronald Reagan opened an era of tax cutting, up to 2010, the most recent year for which relevant data is available.

The analysis shows that the overall burden of taxation declined as a share of income in the 1980s, rose to a new peak in the 1990s and fell again in the 2000s. Tax rates at most income levels were lower in 2010 than at any point during the 1980s.

Governments still collected the same share of total income in 2010 as in 1980 — 31 cents from every dollar — because people with higher incomes pay taxes at higher rates, and household incomes rose over the last three decades, particularly at the top.

There are now many more millionaires, in other words, paying more than they did in 1980, but they are paying less than they would have if tax laws had remained unchanged. And while they still pay a larger share of income in taxes than the rest of the population, the difference has narrowed significantly.

The trend can be seen by comparing three examples:

  • A household making $350,000 in 2010, roughly the cutoff for the top 1 percent, on average paid 42.1 percent of its income in taxes, compared with 49 percent for a household with the same inflation-adjusted income in 1980 — a savings of about $24,100.
  • A household making $52,000 in 2010, roughly the median income, on average paid 27.7 percent of its income in taxes, compared with 30.5 percent in 1980, saving $1,500.
  • A household making $22,000 in 2010 — roughly the federal poverty line for a family of four — on average paid 19.4 percent in taxes, compared with 20.2 percent, saving $200.

Jared Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said the Times analysis highlighted the need to raise taxes on the affluent and cut taxes for the poor. He cautioned that the middle class most likely would need to pay more, too.

"When you look at these numbers, you understand why we're not collecting the revenue we need to support the spending we want," said Mr. Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group. "We've really gutted the system."

But Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a prominent conservative economist, said the changes in taxation over the last three decades reflected a conscious and successful strategy to encourage economic growth that should be reinforced, not reversed.

Mr. Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is the president of the American Action Forum, said government should reduce deficits primarily through spending cuts, particularly to Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs that are the largest source of projected increases in the federal debt.

"We can't grow our way out of it, and we can't tax our way out of it," he said of the government's fiscal predicament. "We have a spending problem, period."

Mr. Hicks, like many residents of Belleville, views this debate with unhappiness. He would like the government to cut spending but not reduce services. He is certain that the government should not raise taxes on the middle class, a group in which he includes himself, but he is ambivalent about asking anyone to pay more. Higher taxes would hurt his businesses, he said, so raising taxes on those who make more money seems likely to hurt their businesses, too.

"At this point, I guess it's inevitable in order to get us out of this hole," Mr. Hicks said of higher taxes. "Illinois is in bad shape, along with a lot of the nation. But I don't feel like we should tax the middle class any more than we are right now. There's going to come a point where they take the incentive out of working hard."

If the government cut his taxes, Mr. Hicks said, he would use the money to put a roof over the picnic tables outside the restaurant, expanding the year-round seating area. He already employs 14 people; then he could hire more.

And if taxes rose? Would Mr. Hicks, who started working when tax rates were higher, really choose to slow down?

He smiled. "No," he said. "I like it. What else would I do with my time?"

The federal income tax, which will turn 100 next year, is in decline.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly voted to reduce the share of income that people must pay. Over the last decade, annual revenues from federal taxation of individual and corporate income averaged just 9.2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, the lowest level for any 10-year period since World War II.

The recession and new rounds of tax cuts further reduced revenues, to 7.6 percent of economic output in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. Stronger economic growth has produced a modest increase in tax collections, but the White House budget office estimates that collections for the fiscal year that ended in September will total 9 percent of economic output, still less than before the financial crisis.

Federal spending, meanwhile, grew faster than the economy over the last decade — particularly during the recession. To pay those bills, the government borrowed more money than it collected in income taxes in each of the last three fiscal years, something it had not done in even a single year since World War II, federal data show.

Congress could have eliminated those deficits by cutting spending. It might also have averted those deficits by leaving the tax code unchanged. The government on average would have collected an additional $800 billion in each year from 2006 to 2010 if the 1980 code had remained in effect and economic activity had continued at the same pace, the Times analysis found. The annual federal deficits during those years averaged $714 billion.

Leaving the tax code as it was in 1980, however, would not have solved the nation's long-term fiscal problems. Increases in federal spending, driven primarily by the rising cost of health care, are projected to outstrip even the revenue-raising capacity of the 1980 tax code in the coming decades, necessitating some combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

The income tax stands apart from other forms of taxation. It is the reason that upper-income households pay a larger share of their income in taxes than the rest of the population. The combined burden of all other federal, state and local taxes takes roughly the same share from all taxpayers. And many Americans — even in a middle-class, Democratic stronghold like Belleville — have misgivings about imposing higher tax rates on the affluent, an important reason that income taxation has declined.

The share of Americans who said high-income households paid too little in taxes fell from 77 percent in 1992 to 62 percent in 2012, according to Gallup, even as income inequality rose to the highest levels since the Great Depression.

Some people in Belleville subscribe to the argument that higher tax rates impede economic growth by discouraging investment. For others, it is a matter of fairness.

Anita Thole, a middle-income safety supervisor for a utility contractor, is not wealthy. She does not expect that she ever will be. She is a single mother with a daughter in college, and she said she regarded the wealthy with a mixture of envy and admiration. But she does not want them to pay higher taxes.

"They work their butt off to get what they got," she said. "I wouldn't want them to pay more so that I can pay less."

Do they work harder than you?

"What? No. I work my butt off," Ms. Thole, 46, said. "But you got to believe in the American dream. You got to love them for what they did, for what they made of themselves and for being more aggressive than me."

Ms. Thole, like many in Belleville, is also convinced that governments could avoid raising taxes by adopting more frugal habits.

"There's some days we stay home and we eat peanut butter," she said.

What would she like governments to cut?

"I really like it when they cut the weeds along the highway," she said. "I like it when there's good roads to drive on. The schools, I don't know, I don't want to pull back from the schools. I don't have the answer of where to pull back.

"I want the state parks to stay open. I want, I want, I want. I want Big Bird. I think it's beautiful. What don't I want? I don't know."

William L. Enyart is a rarity in Belleville: he wants to raise his own taxes.

Mr. Enyart and his wife are lawyers, although for the last five years he led the Illinois National Guard. The couple made $380,587 in 2011 and paid $104,864 in federal taxes. His conviction that they should have paid more may not be shared by many of the area's higher-income residents. But as the newly elected Democratic congressman for southwestern Illinois, Mr. Enyart, 63, is also the only man in town with a direct vote on federal tax policy.

Mr. Enyart, who won the seat of a retiring Democratic congressman, campaigned in part on his support for Mr. Obama's tax plan. He defeated a Republican candidate who opposed it, 52 percent to 43 percent. But Mr. Enyart said he heard little enthusiasm for tax increases in his district. What has changed, he said, is that people are increasingly concerned about cuts to government benefits and services.

"Nobody likes to pay taxes. Nobody wants to raise taxes on anybody," Mr. Enyart said. "But nobody wants to cut veterans services, nobody wants to give up that Interstate highway, nobody wants — pick the service that you like. These are necessary services, and they need to be paid for."

The tax increase proposed by Mr. Obama, on taxable income — income after deductions and other adjustments — above $250,000 a year, would pay for only a small part of those services. It would reduce the projected deficit over the next decade by a little less than 10 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Nonetheless, Mr. Enyart said that he did not support broader tax increases. The focus, he said, should be on requiring the rich to pay more.

"We have the greatest disproportion of wealth since 1928, and I don't think that's a healthy thing," he said. "How much money is enough? Do hedge fund traders really need to make a billion dollars a year and pay only 15 percent in taxes when we have teachers making $50,000 and paying 20 percent?"

John Siemens, who did not vote for Mr. Enyart, said that kind of "raise taxes" talk was a crowd-pleasing distraction from the need for painful spending cuts.

Mr. Siemens and his wife, Jan, both 59, own a company with a pair of factories in southwestern Illinois where workers assemble dollar-bill scanners for vending machines, dashboard lights for automobiles, magnetic probes for hospitals and other electronic equipment. They earned about $250,000 last year, so Mr. Obama's plan would not have increased their income taxes. But it would raise the estate taxes they would have to pay to pass the company to their children someday.

Like many opponents of the president's plan, Mr. Siemens thinks higher taxes will discourage investment and slow economic growth.

"There's some tax rates that probably do need to be raised," he said. "There are some that need to be lowered. But the politicians are not having an honest discussion. Is it fair or not fair is not the question. The question is, If you want to raise revenues, does that make sense or not?"

He noted as an example that interest on municipal bonds is tax-exempt, which encourages the wealthy to lend to local governments.

"Those lower tax rates were put into place for a reason," he said. "It's not just, let's give the wealthy a break."

Mr. Siemens does have a concern about fairness. He believes that lower-income households are not paying enough in taxes.

"By any measure, the wealthy are still paying a disproportionate amount of their income in taxes," he said. "Is that fair or not fair? I don't know, but I have an issue with the dramatic reduction of taxes at the low end because I think everybody needs some skin in the game."

The debate is no longer theoretical here in Illinois. Facing perhaps the deepest budget crisis of any state, the Illinois legislature last year raised the state income tax rate to 5 percent from 3 percent. Unlike the federal income tax, Illinois taxes all income at the same rate.

Mr. Enyart said that the state needed more revenue, but that it should move to a tax system that imposed a heavier burden on high-income households. Mr. Siemens said the state should have cut spending.

The higher taxes have increased his costs and given an advantage to competitors in other states. And there are broader ripples, too: he said he was planning to buy some used machines, rather than new ones, to save money.

"We feel the burden of that, but it hasn't gotten to the threshold of pain yet where we would move," Mr. Siemens said. "There's a lot of expense that would be incurred in moving, including a disruption of the work force, which you are always loath to do."

View From the Lower End

Taylor McCallister, 20, works the front window at Mr. Hicks's barbecue restaurant, taking orders from customers. She also works a second job and attends Southwestern Illinois College. She earned about $30,000 last year and, like her boss, she wishes the government would take less of that money.

"When I see my check it's like, damn, that's a huge chunk that was taken out," she said. "I could have been making $450 instead of $378."

Mitt Romney's remarks about the "47 percent" focused public attention on the rising share of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes, a trend that has encouraged the public perception that lower-income households are getting a sweetheart deal. The share of Americans who think lower-income households pay too little in taxes increased to 24 percent in 2012 from 8 percent in 1992, according to Gallup.

But low-wage workers like Ms. McCallister still pay federal payroll taxes, which provide financing for Social Security and Medicare. They still pay sales taxes. Even if they are renters, they still bear the cost of property taxes in the form of higher rents.

And those taxes have climbed most quickly in recent decades.

The average American in 2010 paid 30 percent more of income in payroll taxes than in 1980, even while paying 27 percent less in federal income taxes. As a result, revenue from the payroll tax almost equaled income tax revenue before a temporary payroll tax cut took effect in 2011. The cut is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

The rise of the payroll tax reflects the general movement away from requiring upper-income households to pay a larger share of income in taxes. All workers pay the same Social Security tax on wages below a threshold, which stood at $106,800 in 2010. The Medicare tax imposes a single rate on all wages, without a threshold.

Some experts argue, however, that payroll taxes are a special case because workers are entitled to Social Security benefits based in part on the amounts that they pay in taxes — a system more akin to a pension plan than an income tax.

In Illinois, the average burden of state and local taxes rose to 10.2 percent of income in 2010 from 8.8 percent in 1980, even before the latest round of tax increases last year.

And Illinois, like most states, takes a larger share of income from those who make less. Illinois households earning less than $25,000 a year on average paid 14.3 percent of income in state and local taxes in 2010, while those earning more than $200,000 paid 9.4 percent, according to the Times analysis.

Ms. McCallister said she and her friends worry about the nation's financial problems. Their answer is simple: Someone has to pay more, and the affluent can best afford to do so. She said it was time to reverse a trend that had been going on so long it predated her birth by a decade.

"I want to know honestly how the more wealthy feel," she said between tending to customers. "You'd think that they would want to help. We're working these kinds of jobs and that's what we have to do to make it through, and there's other people making all this money. I don't get it, honestly.

"I feel that maybe people who don't make as much shouldn't have to pay as much in. But who makes the rules?

"Not me."

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