You have probably heard the statistic that 47% of households paid no federal income tax last year. Sometime this statistic is disingenuously stated as 47% of households paid no tax. There are probably very few, if any, households that pay no tax, since in addition to the federal income tax, there are payroll taxes. state and city income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and more taxes.
Roughly two-thirds of the households that didn’t pay federal income tax did pay payroll taxes. Of the remaining third that didn’t pay payroll taxes over half are elderly. Only about 5% of those who paid no federal income tax are non-elderly with income over $20,000. From these statistics it is fair to conclude that if you didn’t pay any federal income tax you were likely either elderly or had a very small income.
It is estimated that about 80% of households owe federal income tax before taking special tax breaks. That leaves about 27% that paid no federal income tax due to taking tax breaks. Although those with a lower income are able to use tax breaks to eliminate their federal tax liability those with higher incomes benefit even more from tax breaks. “Tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, state and local tax deductions, deduction for charitable contributions and exclusion of contributions to pensions, 401(k) plans and employer-sponsored health insurance are much, much bigger and disproportionately flow to those with higher incomes. ” Tax breaks are worth about 7-8% of income for low and middle income households. For households in the top 20% tax breaks are worth about 11% of income.
Eliminating all these tax breaks would mean that a lot of the 47% would pay federal income tax. It would also mean that most of the 53% would pay more federal income taxes. That is probably not the result that those who complain about the 47% want.
I don’t think it is bad policy for the old and/or poor to not have to pay federal income tax. The elderly have presumably already paid their fair share of taxes. Both Republican and Democrat Presidents have passed or expanded measures such as the EITC to help keep the poor off the tax rolls. Only a small minority of those who don’t pay federal income taxes are the “welfare queen” type.
If you’re still concerned about such a large percentage of households having no federal income tax liability, there is good news. It is estimated that only about 40% of households will have no federal tax liability for the 2012 tax year.