Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Income Tax System is Broken


On April 15, don't be surprised if the line at your local post office is a bit shorter than usual. That's because your neighbors may not be paying any income taxes this year.

An astonishing 43.4 percent of Americans now pay zero or negative federal income taxes. The number of single or jointly filing "taxpayers" - the word must be applied sparingly - who pay no taxes or receive government handouts has reached 65.6 million, out of a total of 151 million.

Those numbers come from an analysis published yesterday by the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. Neither is a low-tax or conservative advocacy group; the Urban Institute was created under the Johnson administration during the Great Society era, and it receives most of its funding from the federal government.

"You've got a larger and larger share of people paying less and less for the services provided by the federal government," says Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center. "The concern is that the majority can say, 'Let's have more benefits, spend more,' if they're not paying for it. It's 'free.' That's not a good thing to have."

By historic standards, today's situation is an aberration. Between 1950 and 1990, the number of owe-no-money federal tax returns averaged 21 percent, dipping to 18 percent in 1986, according to Tax Foundation data. In the 1990s, the owe-no-money percentage hovered around 25 percent of taxpayers.

But then politicians began another round of tinkering with the tax code, adding reams of new pages to an already incomprehensible set of rules that even the guy overseeing the IRS can't seem to figure out.

Democrats wanted to lower taxes on the least affluent, while Republicans wanted to lower taxes on everyone. The result was bipartisan enthusiasm for tax credits aimed at everything from children (1997) and college students (1997) to hybrid cars (2005) and homebuyers (2009). Many of these credits dole out cash to people even if they report no income, making them mere government handouts.

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