45% of American’s Pay No Income Tax in 2010

The Miami Herald reported yesterday the results of a nationwide McClatchy-Marist poll showing that American’s are 2-1 in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy.

Coincidentally, a number of other news outlets reported yesterday a study by the Tax Policy Center showing that 45% of Americans pay no income tax at all. Since McClatchy-Marist’s poll used a random sample, those 45% are presumably represented appropriately amongst those who want the wealthy to pay more tax. It’s interesting that so many who pay so little want others to pay more. And it’s also interesting that calls for the wealthy to pay more tax are so often framed as “shared sacrifice“.

I went looking for the details of the Tax Policy Center’s analysis and the most specific information I could find was actually for 2009, contained in a report published in July of that year. In that case the proportion of people paying no tax was 47%. The table below taken from that report shows a detailed breakdown by income level.

The updated figure of 45% for 2010 appears to come from a short article from March last year (incidentally it also notes that the report containing the 2009 data is the most requested publication from their website). Another Tax Policy Center article, from June 2010, makes the further point that the largest factor behind so many people paying no income tax is the fact that “Congress has chosen to deliver large portions of social policy through the tax code.”

I have no problem with the notion that those in genuine hardship should not be expected to pay income tax. But 45% of the American population do not live in hardship by any sensible global or historical standard. Unlike most conservatives, I’m not fundamentally opposed to tax increases (though I have questions about the need for them and their effectiveness). Nor am I fundamentally opposed to tax increases on the wealthy. I just think that expecting the entire middle class to pay their ‘fair share’ should be a higher priority than going back to those who already bear the greatest share of the country’s tax burden. And yes, that means that I think I should pay more tax before someone earning more than I does. I suspect I may be in the minority on that.

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