Tax Foundation — Record Numbers of People Paying No Income Tax; Over 50 Million “Nonpayers” Include Families Making over $50,000Thursday, March 11th, 2010
Nonpaying status used to be a sure sign of poverty or near-poverty, but Congress and the President have changed the tax laws to pull much of the middle class into the growing pool of nonpayers. The income level at which a typical family of four will owe no income taxes has risen rapidly, now topping $51,000.
As a result, recently released IRS data for the 2008 tax year show that a record 51.6 million filers had no income tax obligation. That means more than 36 percent of all Americans who filed a tax return for 2008 were nonpayers, raising serious doubts about the ability of the income tax system to continue funding the federal government’s ballooning expenditures.
The Growth of the Nonpaying Population
Since it was enacted in 1913, the income tax code has contained provisions that exempt low-income workers or greatly reduce their income tax burden. These provisions include the standard deduction, personal exemption, dependent exemption, and the earned income tax credit (EITC). Between 1950 and 1990, the percentage of tax filers whose entire tax liability was wiped out by these provisions averaged 21 percent.
Since the early 1990s, however, lawmakers have increasingly used the tax code instead of government spending programs to funnel money to groups of people they want to reward. Credits have been enacted to subsidize families with children, college students, and purchasers of hybrid cars, just to name a few of the most well known. In terms of tax revenue, the most significant of these socially targeted credits was the $500 per-child tax credit enacted in 1997. The 2001 and 2003 tax bills doubled the value of the credit to $1,000 and added a refundable component.