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Better understanding the 47 percent

Posted October 1st, 2012 to Blog
Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Heather Gibney

The current political environment has set off a firestorm of confusion about who does and who does not pay taxes in America — and unfair criticism of many working families and others.

It’s true that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay taxes. In fact, almost two-thirds of the 47 percent are low-income, working households who are paying payroll taxes to help finance Social Security and Medicare, and many pay federal excise taxes on things like gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes.[1] These households are also paying a large percentage of their income in state and local sales and property taxes.

Many working Americans are exempt from the income tax because of features Congress added to the tax code — with overwhelming bipartisan support, in an effort to enable people to care for themselves and their children while encouraging them to work. Some of these features include the Earned Income Tax Credit, a Ronald Reagan era anti-poverty program that enables low-wage working families with children to meet their basic needs while promoting employment. In addition, the child tax credit gives families a tax credit through the form of a refund check even when they don’t owe federal income taxes.[2]

The other one-third of the 47 percent — those households that aren’t paying either major federal tax — includes those who are unemployed, low-income senior citizens who paid taxes during their working years and aren’t currently taxed on Social Security benefits, students, those who have disabilities or can’t work due to serious injury and people who don’t meet the income tax obligation because their wages aren’t high enough.

Often missed in the focus on those who are not currently paying income taxes is the errant assumption that all those people have never paid taxes and never will. Just because a household doesn’t owe income tax one year, doesn’t mean they won’t pay income taxes over their lifetime. For many, a career change, the loss of a job, a disability or injury, or low wages can lead to incomes too low to pay taxes.

Iowa households who aren’t paying federal income tax are still paying a large percentage of their incomes to state and local taxes. As the Iowa Policy Project reported in (2009), moderate-and low-income Iowans pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the rich do. [3] [4]

whopays2009As the graph at right shows, Iowa’s regressive tax system takes a larger share of the incomes from those who have the least, and a smaller share from those who have the ability to pay a larger percentage of their income. Make no mistake: Working Iowans pay taxes.

For more on this issue, see our two-pager, “Better understanding the 47 percent.”