Evidence on Taxes and Income
Posted summer 2008
The Census Bureau data on income and poverty reveal that many of the economic trends in this country are a lot more favorable than America's detractors seems to think. In 2007, overall real median family income increased to $50,233, up $600 from 2006. The real median income for intact families -- mother and father in the home -- rose to $78,000, an all-time high.
Although incomes fell sharply in the U.S. after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 (and still haven't fully recovered), these latest statistics reflect a 25-year trend of upward economic mobility. More important, Barack Obama is wrong when he states on his campaign Web site that the economic policies started by Ronald Reagan have rewarded "wealth not work." Based on this false claim -- that the rich have benefited by economic growth while others have not -- he intends to raise tax rates on high-income individuals.
To be sure, there has been a massive amount of wealth created in America over the last 25 years. But tax rates were cut dramatically across the income spectrum, for rich and poor alike. The results?
When all sources of income are included -- wages, salaries, realized capital gains, dividends, business income and government benefits -- and taxes paid are deducted, households in the lowest income quintile saw a roughly 25% increase in their living standards from 1983 to 2005. (See chart nearby; the data is from the Congressional Budget Office's "Comprehensive Household Income.") This fact alone refutes the notion that the poor are getting poorer. They are not.
Looking at the last two business cycles (first year of recovery to first year of recovery), this low-income group experienced a 10% rise in their inflation-adjusted after-tax incomes from 1983 to 1992 and then another 11% rise from 1992 to 2002). Roughly speaking, the Reagan and Clinton presidencies were equally good for them. Income gains over the last 30 years have been systematically understated due to several factors. These include:
- Fall in people per household. The gains in household income undercount the actual gains per person, because the average number of people living in low-income households has been shrinking. On a per capita basis, the real income gain for low-income households was 44% from 1983 to 2005, about 22% from 1983 to 1992 and about 18% from 1992 to 2002. These are excellent numbers by any measure.
- Earned income tax credit effect. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a government payment to low income people who work. It was instituted on a small scale in 1975. In 1986, 1990, 1993 and 2001, Congress expanded the program.
Over time the EITC has multiplied the number of poor households that fill out tax forms each year and are thus counted in government income statistics. That's because to be eligible to receive the refundable EITC, a tax return must be filed.
Official tax return data show that in 1983, 19% of returns had zero tax liability; that percentage has climbed steadily, reaching 33% in 2005. (The Tax Policy Center estimates that in 2008 nearly 40% of filers will have no income tax liability.) Thus, we are now statistically counting more poorer families today than we used to. This is a major reason that median and poor household income gains appear to be a lot smaller than they have been in reality.
- Income mobility. In the U.S., people who had low incomes in 1983 didn't necessarily have incomes as low a decade later. People in this country have long moved up over time, and this income mobility continues to be true. While some people do remain in the lowest income group, they are the exception.
One way to quantify income mobility is to examine how many people remain in the same tax bracket over time. We compared the returns of tax filers in the lowest tax rate bracket (zero) in 1987 with their returns in 1996. Only one third of the tax filers were still in the zero tax bracket, but 25% were now in the 10% bracket, 32% had moved up to the 15% bracket and 9% were in the 25%, 28%, 33% or 35% brackets. And that was following them for a decade, not a generation.
From 1996 to 2005, we have the income mobility data for income quintiles. Of those filers who were in the lowest 20% in 1996 and who also filed in 2005, 42.4% remained in the bottom 20%, 28.6% were in the next highest quintile, 13.9% were in the middle quintile, 9.9% were in the second highest quintile, and 5.3% were in the highest quintile.
What is also striking about the data is that the poor today are, in general, not the same people who were poor even a few years ago. For example, the new Census data find that only 3% of Americans are "chronically" poor, which the Census Bureau defines as being in poverty for three years or more. Many of the people in the bottom quintile of income earners in any one year are new entrants to the labor force or those who are leaving the labor force. Obviously, there is also a significant core of truly poor people in this group, but that core is drastically less than 100%.
The data also show downward mobility among the highest income earners. The top 1% in 1996 saw an average decline in their real, after-tax incomes by 52% in the next 10 years.
America is still an opportunity society where talent and hard work can (almost always) overcome one's position at birth or at any point in time. Perhaps the best piece of news in this regard is the reduction in gaps between earnings of men and women, and between blacks and whites over the last 25 years.
Census Bureau data of real income gains from 1980 to 2005 show the rise in incomes based on gender and race. White males have had the smallest gains in income (up 9%), while black females have had by far the largest increase in income (up 79%). White females were up 74% and black males were up 34%. Income gaps within groups are rising, but the gaps among groups are declining. People are being rewarded in today's economy based on what they know and what they can do, not on the basis of who their parents are or the color of their skin.
There are of course Americans who live in poverty, as there are very affluent Americans with $25 million yachts and $10 million homes who hold ostentatious $200,000 birthday parties. But the evidence is plain that all groups across the income distribution have made solid gains during the last generation.
Taking from the rich through much higher tax rates in order to help the poor and middle class makes no sense intellectually and has seldom worked in practice. Reducing rates, on the other hand, does increase the share of taxes paid by the highest income-earning group. For example, in 1981, when the highest tax rate on the rich was 70% and the top capital gains tax rate was close to 45%, the richest 1% of Americans paid 17% of total income taxes. In 2005, with a top income tax rate of 35% and capital gains at 15%, the richest 1% of Americans paid 39%.
We suspect that Mr. Obama will discover that when you put "tax fairness" ahead of economic progress, you produce neither.
By Arthur B. Laffer and Stephan Moore - The Wall Street Journal September 15, 2008
Mr. Laffer is president of Laffer Associates. Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial board.