The ever-expanding number of credits and tax breaks for the poor and middle class have translated into a record number of people with modest means paying no net taxes at all.
The discrepancy between the large amount of taxes paid by the rich and the lack of taxes paid by people with low incomes is only going to grow, given President Obama's vow not to raise taxes on the middle class.
That might be good politics, and it's arguably a fair way to redistribute wealth. But a Robin Hood tax code will make it increasingly difficult to address mounting deficits, experts warn.
The top 1 percent of earners took home 23 percent of the nation's adjusted gross income in 2007. That sounds like a huge haul, but these top earners also paid a huge share of federal income taxes — just over 40 percent that year,
according to the Tax Foundation.
Relying on a narrow tax base can lead to uncertainty for tax collectors
— even if that base consists of top earners. That's certainly been the case in states such as California and New York. Their taxes fall disproportionately on people with big incomes. During recent recessions — when top incomes, stock options and capital gains all dropped — those states have seen their revenues go into a nosedive.
"The rich just don't have enough money,"
says Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the paper's authors. "You either have to tax more of the income distribution, or find other sources of revenue."
One reason the rich are paying proportionately more is that lower-income households are paying less — or nothing at all. Last year, a record 51.6 million filers — 36 percent of the total — paid no income taxes.
That's thanks to breaks and benefits such as the earned income tax credit. The number of credits and deductions — for children, for students, for Prius owners — is increasing. Williams estimates that 47 percent of single filers and 38 percent of joint filers will owe no taxes this year.
What does it mean when more than a third of the nation is paying no income taxes? You can look at it two ways.
Leonard Burman, a public policy professor at Syracuse University, suggests that today's tax code is not just about taxes, but transferring wealth. Families at all income levels are receiving credits and breaks — with top earners still getting a higher share, he says. So there's nothing wrong with those closer toward the bottom getting credits, particularly ones that reward work.
But others will argue that having such a huge percentage of the population paying no taxes means there's less restraint on government[B]. If it's not coming out of your pocket, you may demand more services — and you'll certainly protest when programs are being cut.
[/B]"Everybody should pay something so we don't fall into this trap of the free lunch,"
says Ronald C. Fisher, an economist at Michigan State.