Economics/Class Relations

Who pays America’s taxes?

The Week Staff

During the debate over spending bills, Democrats proposed raising taxes on the wealthy. Do the rich pay a fair share? Here’s everything you need to know:

What do the wealthy pay?

Generally, a much lower percentage of their incomes than the middle class. A White House study released in September found that America’s 400 wealthiest families paid an average federal income tax rate of just 8.2 percent from 2010 to 2018. The rich do pay other taxes not included in the White House analysis, such as estate taxes, but in recent decades, most kinds of taxes on the wealthy have been substantially cut. The marginal tax rate for the top tax bracket held at above 63 percent between 1932 and 1982, spiking as high as 92 percent in the 1950s. Now, after decades of cuts that started during the Reagan administration, the top marginal rate stands at 37 percent. In addition, payroll taxes to finance Social Security and Medicare are levied on laborers and CEOs at the same rate, and only up to $142,800 in income. If you include all taxes, such as sales and state taxes, the country’s top 1 percent earn about 21 percent of total income and pay about 24 percent of total taxes, making our tax system progressive — but mildly so.

Why isn’t it more progressive?

In writing and amending the tax code over the decades, Congress has been heavily influenced by the political contributions of wealthy Americans and large corporations, and the armies of lobbyists they send to Washington. Investment income is taxed at a much lower rate than salaries, on the theory that this encourages business growth and stimulates the economy. The tax code is also filled with loopholes and deductions only the wealthy can take. An analysis by ProPublica earlier this year, based on a trove of leaked IRS data, showed that mega-billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett have paid no federal income taxes at all in some years, and a very low percentage on their massive gains in wealth. Bezos, one of the world’s richest men, paid $973 million in personal federal taxes on $4.2 billion in reported income between 2014 and 2018. His wealth, mostly in the form of Amazon stock, increased by $99 billion during that same time period, giving him a “true tax rate” of 0.98 percent, ProPublica said. Corporations pull similar tricks: Between 2018 and 2020, 39 S&P or Fortune 500 companies managed to pay no income tax while recording a combined $122 billion in profits.


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