Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Progressivity of Taxes and Transfers

To update one of the tables for the next edition of my favorite textbook, I have been looking at the new CBO report on the distribution of income and taxes.  I found the following calculations, based on the numbers in the CBO's Table 7, illuminating.

Because transfer payments are, in effect, the opposite of taxes, it makes sense to look not just at taxes paid, but at taxes paid minus transfers received.  For 2009, the most recent year available, here are taxes less transfers as a percentage of market income (income that households earned from their work and savings):

Bottom quintile: -301 percent
Second quintile: -42 percent
Middle quintile: -5 percent
Fourth quintile: 10 percent
Highest quintile: 22 percent

Top one percent: 28 percent

The negative 301 percent means that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives about $3 in transfer payments for every dollar earned.

The most surprising fact to me was that the effective tax rate is negative for the middle quintile.  According to the CBO data, this number was +14 percent in 1979 (when the data begin) and remained positive through 2007.  It was negative 0.5 percent in 2008, and negative 5 percent in 2009.  That is, the middle class, having long been a net contributor to the funding of government, is now a net recipient of government largess.

I recognize that part of this change is attributable to temporary measures to deal with the deep recession.  But it is noteworthy nonetheless, as other deep recessions, such as that in 1982, did not produce a similar policy response.

Update: A reader points out the CBO's transfer data includes state and local transfers, but the tax data includes only federal taxes.  If state and local taxes were included, or if state and local transfers were excluded, the middle quintile might well turn positive, though the CBO does not provide the data to establish that conclusion definitively.