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Thursday, March 29, 2007

The "Dramatic" Reduction in the Progressivity of Federal Taxes

The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities reports on changes in the progressivity of federal taxes over time:

New Study Finds "Dramatic" Reduction Since 1960 in the Progressivity of the Federal Tax System, by Aviva Aron-Dine, CBPP: In a new study, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez ... examine how the progressivity of the federal tax system has changed over time. Unlike previous analyses, theirs examines effective federal tax rates going back to 1960, including income, payroll, corporate, and estate taxes, and provides data for income groups reaching up to the top one-hundredth of one percent (.01 percent) of the population. Several crucial findings emerge from their study.


“The progressivity of the U.S. federal tax system at the top of the income distribution has declined dramatically since the 1960s.” As Figure 1 shows, since 1960, average federal tax rates for middle-income households have increased and then declined modestly. Over the same period, high-income households saw sharp drops in their federal tax rates.

Moreover, the drops were largest for the very highest-income households. The average tax rate declined by a larger amount for households in the top one hundredth of 1 percent of the income scale (where incomes in 2004 averaged about $15 million) than for households in the top tenth of 1 percent (where incomes averaged above $3.7 million) or for households in the top 1 percent (where incomes averaged about $850,000). ...

“Large reductions in tax progressivity since the 1960s took place primarily during two periods: the Reagan presidency in the 1980s and the Bush administration in the early 2000s.” ...

As Piketty and Saez point out, economists generally assess whether a tax system is progressive based on whether the distribution of after-tax income is more equal than the distribution of pre-tax income. They assess whether a tax cut is progressive based on whether it makes the distribution of after-tax income more or less equal.

Like others who have examined the effects of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, Piketty and Saez find that the tax cuts made the distribution of after-tax income less equal. ... In short, the tax cuts were regressive.

Because it omits the effects of those tax cuts enacted in 2001 that were not fully phased in by 2004 (such as the repeal by 2010 of the estate tax and of the provisions of the tax code that reduce the value of itemized deductions and personal exemptions for households at high income levels), Piketty and Saez’s simulation substantially understates the regressivity of the tax cuts once they are fully in effect. Even so, it offers additional confirmation that the tax cuts were regressive.

In sum, Piketty and Saez’s new study shows that the federal tax system has become much less progressive over the past several decades, and the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts have continued this trend. Over much the same several decades, pre-tax income inequality has grown as well. Thus, during a period in which economic forces have been generating increased pre-tax inequality, changes in the tax system have exacerbated rather than mitigated the widening of the income gap.

The new results showing that income inequality continues to widen have been covered here before, the CBPP details the results here, and today's NY Times summarizes the results as well:

Income Gap Is Widening, Data Shows, by David Cay Johnston, NY Times: Income inequality grew significantly in 2005, with the top 1 percent of Americans — those with incomes that year of more than $348,000 — receiving their largest share of national income since 1928... The top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than $100,000, also reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression.

While total reported income in the United States increased almost 9 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data is available, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping $172, or 0.6 percent.

The gains went largely to the top 1 percent, whose incomes rose to an average of more than $1.1 million each, an increase of more than $139,000, or about 14 percent. ... Per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.

Prof. Emmanuel Saez, the University of California, Berkeley, economist ... analyzed the Internal Revenue Service data with Prof. Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics...

Mr. Saez ... noted that the analysis was based on preliminary data and that the highest-income Americans were more likely than others to file their returns late, so his data might understate the growth in inequality.

The disparities may be even greater for another reason. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that it is able to accurately tax 99 percent of wage income but that it captures only about 70 percent of business and investment income, most of which flows to upper-income individuals, because not everybody accurately reports such figures. ...

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for the poor, said that the data understates the widening disparity between the top 1 percent and the rest of the country.

He said that in addition to rising incomes and reduced taxes, the equation should take into account cuts in fringe benefits to workers and in government services that middle-class and poor Americans rely on more than the affluent. These include health care, child care and education spending. ...

Mr. Greenstein’s organization will release a report today showing that for Americans in the middle, the share of income taken by federal taxes has been essentially unchanged across four decades. By comparison, it has fallen by half for those at the very top of the income ladder. ...

The top 1 percent received 21.8 percent of all reported income in 2005, up significantly from 19.8 percent the year before and more than double their share of income in 1980. ...

The top tenth of a percent and top one-hundredth of a percent recorded even bigger gains in 2005 over the previous year. Their incomes soared by about a fifth in one year, largely because of the rising stock market and increased business profits. The top tenth of a percent reported an average income of $5.6 million, up $908,000, while the top one-hundredth of a percent had an average income of $25.7 million, up nearly $4.4 million in one year.

    Posted by on Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 02:43 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (96)


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