The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Rich Pay Higher Taxes

The headline of David Leonhardt’s recent New York Times column summarized the research of of economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who are advisers to Senator Elizabeth Warren. It read: “The rich really do pay lower taxes than you.”

The narrative that the U.S. tax system is not progressive — that the rich do not pay a larger share of their income in taxes than other income groups — is growing on the political left.

It is inaccurate, as I discuss in my latest Bloomberg column:

The U.S. federal tax code is very progressive. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the lowest-income 20% of households have an average federal tax rate of about 2%. Those in the middle 20% pay 14% of their income in federal taxes. Higher-income households face higher rates. The top 20% pay a 27% federal rate. And the federal tax rate for the top 1% is 33%. These data are for 2016, the most recent year available.

This is half of the story. When assessing the progressivity of the U.S. federal system, it makes sense to look at both taxes and the means-tested transfer payments — Medicaid, food stamps and Supplemental Security Income — that those taxes fund.

If you subtract these payments from federal taxes paid, the tax rate for the top 20% of households (including the top 1%) is unchanged, as those households don’t receive means-tested benefits. The tax rate for households in the middle 20% drops considerably, from 14% to 9%. And the rate for the bottom 20% of households plummets to minus 70%. Those households receive $49 in transfer payments for every $1 they pay in federal tax.

Check out my column for my full argument. Your comments, as always, are very welcome.

Michael R. Strain — Michael R. Strain is the director of economic-policy studies and the Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.  

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