Paying Their Fair Share

Making “the rich” pay their “fair share” has been a talking point for some time and became a bit of a slogan during the presidential race. Drawing on the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent report, the Tax Foundation posts,

One of the main takeaways from this year’s report is that the richest Americans pay a lot in taxes. In 2013, the top 1 percent of households paid an average of 34.0 percent of their income in federal taxes. To compare, the middle 20 percent of households paid only 12.8 percent of their income in taxes.

Moreover, taxes on the rich are much higher than they’ve been in recent years. Between 2008 and 2012, the top 1 percent of households paid an average tax rate of 28.8 percent. However, in 2013, this figure spiked to 34.0 percent, as a result of tax increases in the “fiscal cliff” deal and the Affordable Care Act.

We’ve known for a while that taxes rose on the rich in 2013, but the new CBO report puts in perspective exactly how high taxes on the rich are now, compared to the last three decades. For instance, in 2013, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a higher tax rate (34.0 percent) than in the year President Reagan took office (33.2 percent).

According to the CBO, the federal tax system is now “the most progressive it has been since at least the mid-1990s.” Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes that “the government is doing more to fight inequality right now than any year on record.”

Economist Mark Perry provides additional insights (as he has in the past) to the CBO report. For example,

  • The bottom three income quintiles are net recipient households, meaning they receive more in transfer payments than they pay in federal taxes. The top two could be designated as net payer households. The top income quintile in particular “finance[s] almost 100% of the transfer payments to the bottom 60%, as well as almost 100% of the tax revenue collected to run the federal government.”

  • The bottom three quintiles receive “more than $1 in government transfer payments for every $1 paid in federal taxes in 2013. The fourth quintile consists of minor net payer households, receiving “slightly less than a dollar in transfer payments on average ($0.85) for every $1 paid in federal taxes. In contrast, “net payer households” in the top income quintile received only $0.17 in government transfer payments per $1 paid in federal taxes in 2013.”


  • “Adjusting for government transfers received, the light blue bars in the chart are calculated by dividing “Federal taxes paid minus government transfers received” (row 6 in the table) into Before-Tax Income (row 3), and show average federal tax rates by income quintile after government transfers. For example, the average “net recipient household” in the lowest income quintile received a “negative tax” payment of $8,800 in 2013, had an average before-tax income of $25,400, for a negative federal tax rate of 35%…This further demonstrates that after transfer payments, Americans in the bottom 60% by income are “net recipient households” with negative federal income tax rates, while only households in the top two “net payer” income quintiles had positive federal income tax rates after transfers in 2013.”

Perry concludes,

The CBO study released [in June] provides ample evidence that the richest Americans are paying their “fair share” of federal taxes. In fact, the richest 20% of Americans by income aren’t just paying a share of federal taxes that would be considered “fair” – it goes way beyond “fair” – they’re shouldering almost 100% of the entire federal tax burden of transfer payments and all other non-financed government spending.

…It’s also important to note here that the US has the most progressive federal tax system among all OECD-24 countries, see Tax Foundation president Scott Hodge’s article “No Country Leans on Upper-Income Households as Much as the US.” Specifically, the top 10% of American households pay 45.1% of all income taxes (both personal income and payroll taxes combined), which is the highest tax share for that group in any of the OECD-24 countries and far above the 31.6% average for the tax burden of the top income decile. Accounting for the income share of the top income decile, the US also has the highest ratio of the income tax share of the top 10% (45.1%) to the total income share of that group (33.5%) of 1.35 times, compared to the OECD average ratio of only 1.11.1