May 4, 2009
By Curtis S. Dubay
Since the passage of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, critics have
claimed incessantly that they disproportionately benefited the rich
while burdening the poor. Now that the data is in, these claims
have been shown to be unquestionably false.
Squeezing the Wealthy Even More
According to a report issued by the Congressional Budget Office
(CBO), the tax cuts significantly increased the share of federal
income taxes paid by the highest-earning 20 percent of households
compared to their levels in 2000, President Clinton's final year in
In 2006, the latest available year from CBO, the top 20 percent
of income earners paid 86.3 percent of all federal income taxes, an
all-time high. This is an increase of over 6 percent from
2000, when the top 20 percent paid 81.2 percent. During the same
period, the bottom four quintiles all saw their share of the
federal income tax burden fall sharply:
Each of these four quintiles' shares was an all-time low.
2001 and 2003 Tax Cuts Removed
Low-Income Earners from Roles
The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts removed millions of taxpayers from
the federal income tax rolls, leaving only those at the top to pay
the bill. They lowered every federal income tax rate and created a
new 10 percent bracket to further reduce taxes for low-income
While these tax rate cuts lowered taxes for all taxpayers,
low-income earners got the biggest cut. In addition to these rate
cuts, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expanded the refundable Child Tax
Credit from $500 per child to $1,000 per child. The combination of
lower tax rates and an expanded Child Tax Credit meant many
low-income taxpayers no longer paid any federal income taxes.
Was Greater Income the Cause?
Critics counter that the increase in tax shares for high-earners
was due to income increases at the top of the income spectrum. But
a closer look at the data shows this just is not the case.
The top 20 percent of earners saw their share of pre-tax income
rise from 54.8 percent to 55.7 percent, from 2000 to 2006. During
that same period, their share of federal income taxes increased
from 81.2 percent to 86.3 percent.
The modest increase in incomes is not large enough to explain
the large increase in the share of income taxes paid by the top 20
percent. Rather, the removal of substantial numbers of low-income
taxpayers from the federal income tax rolls is the real
Refundable Credits Redistribute
The bottom 40 percent of income earners actually paid a negative
share of federal income taxes in 2006. In other words, these
taxpayers are actually paid money through the tax code. This
happens through refundable credits like the Child Tax Credit and
the Earned Income Tax Credit, which result in "refunds" when they
are greater than the taxpayer's total income tax liability.
For instance, if a family with one child has an income tax
liability of $300, it can claim the Child Tax Credit, which wipes
out their tax liability, and still receive $700 from the IRS for
the remainder of the $1,000 credit. On April 15, not only do the
bottom 40 percent of all taxpayers pay no taxes, but they actually
receive additional income from the IRS.
Refundable credits redistribute income from the top 20 percent
of earners to the remaining tax filers, with the bottom 20 percent
the prime beneficiaries. The bottom quintile's share of income,
measured after taxes, actually increased a whopping 17 percent
compared to its pre-tax levels because of the income they got from
refundable credits. Comparing shares of income before taxes are
paid to after, only the top quintile saw their share of income
Obama's Tax Policies Widen the Gap
President Obama's tax policies would cause federal income taxes
paid by the top 20 percent to increase and the shares of the
remaining 80 percent to decrease even further. These policies
include those passed as part of the stimulus legislation and those
included in the President's Budget Blueprint.
The stimulus created the Making Work Pay Credit and expanded the
Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. These refundable
credits will knock even more taxpayers from the federal income tax
rolls and send more money to low-income taxpayers. With fewer low- and
middle-income taxpayers paying federal income taxes, the burden
will shift even further in the direction of top earners.
President Obama also proposed in his Budget Blueprint to
increase income taxes on those making over $250,000 by increasing
their tax rates on investment income and reducing the amount they
could deduct. This would dramatically increase the share
of taxes paid by the top 20 percent while the remaining 80 percent
of earners would not pay higher taxes as a result of these proposed
Stop Shifting Burden to Top 20
To stop the shifting of the tax burden to a dwindling number of
taxpayers, Congress should:
On Dangerous Ground
The shifting of the tax burden to a small segment of high-income
taxpayers is economically dangerous. The beneficiaries of
government services are increasingly those who share little or none
of the tax burden to pay for them. As they become more numerous,
they put more pressure on Congress for more services. Meanwhile,
those who bear most of the burden are being squeezed even more,
shrinking their number. The result is a growing group of government
beneficiaries clamoring for more of a shrinking group's wealth.
Congress should put an end to this practice.
Curtis S. Dubay is a Senior
Analyst in Tax Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic
Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Show references in this report
Unless otherwise noted, all data come from
Congressional Budget Office, "Historical Effective Federal Tax
Rates: 1979 to 2006" April 2009, at /static/reportimages/B4D09657951A2487A84EC60B951F76F2.pdf
(April 23, 2009).
Curtis S. Dubay, "'Making Work Pay Credit' Will
Not Stimulate the Economy," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No.
2240, January 26, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Taxes/wm2240.cfm.
Curtis S. Dubay, "Obama's Stimulus Has "Spread
the Wealth Around': Are Tax Hikes Next" Heritage Foundation
WebMemo No. 2354, March 23, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Economy/wm2354.cfm.
Office of Management and Budget, A New Era of Responsibility:
Renewing America's Promise (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 2009), p. 123, Table S-6, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/assets
(April 23, 2009).
Since the passage of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, critics haveclaimed incessantly that they disproportionately benefited the richwhile burdening the poor. Now that the data is in, these claimshave been shown to be unquestionably false.
Curtis S. Dubay
Research Fellow, Tax and Economic Policy
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