Federal Taxes Don’t Look Like You’d Think

By Ray Pinard | August 22, 2013

By Charlie Arlinghaus at The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy – As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader 

Because the numbers are so large, most people don’t bother to look at federal taxes and end up making assumptions that are at odds with the actual numbers. Federal taxes and the federal budget are very different from political rhetoric and muck of media reporting.

Every year the federal government adds to its historical analysis of who paid income taxes and how much they paid. Based on the rhetoric that floats around during the budget crisis that seems to return every few months, you might get the wrong idea. Interestingly, the federal income tax — the largest share of federal revenues — is remarkably progressive and has been getting more so for the last 30 years.

While the only certainties in life are said to be death and taxes, the federal income tax is an exception. Everyone may hate taxes but we don’t all pay them. Almost half of Americans, about 47 percent, don’t pay any income taxes. I don’t mean they get a refund of some of their pre-payments. Their annual tax income tax bill is either zero or negative (meaning their refunds exceed payments). That number varies by year and is a little higher in the early years of the recession but even in good times it was 40 percent.

One analyst, by the way, remarked that perhaps the 45 percent of people in polls who are happy with the tax system aren’t actually crazy as we might think but rather just the people who have nothing to be annoyed by because they don’t get a bill.

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