That depends on who is offering the opinion. Democratic candidates for president certainly don’t think so. John Edwards has said, “It’s time to restore fairness to a tax code that has been driven badly out of whack.” Hillary Clinton laments that “middle-class and working families are paying a much higher percentage of their income [in taxes].” Over the past seven years, however, Americans in general think taxes have become more fair, not less. The Gallup Organization found in an April poll that 60 percent of respondents believe the income taxes that they themselves pay are fair, compared with 37 percent who believe the taxes they pay are unfair. In 1997, the figures were 51 percent fair and 43 percent unfair.
2. What income group pays the most federal income taxes today?
The latest data show that a big portion of the federal income tax burden is shouldered by a small group of the very richest Americans. The wealthiest 1 percent of the population earn 19 percent of the income but pay 37 percent of the income tax. The top 10 percent pay 68 percent of the tab. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent—those below the median income level—now earn 13 percent of the income but pay just 3 percent of the taxes. These are proportions of the income tax alone and don’t include payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare.
3. But didn’t the Bush tax cuts favor the rich?
The New York Times reported recently that the average family in America with an income of $10 million or more received a half-million-dollar tax cut, while the middle class got crumbs (less than $100 shaved off their tax bill). If we examine the taxes paid in a static world—that is, if we assume that there was no change in behavior and economic performance as a result of the tax code—then these numbers are meaningful. Most of the tax cuts went to the super wealthy.
But Americans did respond to the tax cuts. There was more investment, more hiring by businesses, and a stronger stock market. When we compare the taxes paid under the old system with those paid after the Bush tax cuts, the rich are now actually paying a higher proportion of income taxes. The latest IRS data show an increase of more than $100 billion in tax payments from the wealthy by 2005 alone. The number of tax filers who claimed taxable income of more than $1 million increased from approximately 180,000 in 2003 to over 300,000 in 2005. The total taxes paid by these millionaire households rose by about 80 percent in two years, from $132 billion to $236 billion.
4. But haven’t the tax cuts put more of the burden on the backs of the middle class and the poor?
No. I examined the Treasury Department analysis of how much the rich would have paid without the Bush tax cuts and how much they actually did pay. The rich are now paying more than they would have paid, not less, after the Bush investment tax cuts. For example, the Treasury’s estimate was that the top 1 percent of earners would pay 31 percent of taxes if the Bush cuts did not go into effect; with the cuts, they actually paid 37 percent. Similarly, the share of the top 10 percent of earners was estimated at 63 percent without the cuts; they actually paid 68 percent.
5. What has happened to tax rates in America over the last several decades?