Breaking Down the Lucky Duckies

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The other day I wrote about the zombie lie that half of Americans pay no taxes. This is something conservatives repeat routinely, somehow forgetting repeatedly to explain that what they really mean is that half of Americans pay no federal income tax but do pay plenty of other taxes. When you call them out on this wee mistake they tend to get offended — though somehow, never quite offended enough to stop saying it.

But put that aside. Even stated accurately, you might be wondering how it is that so many people end up not paying any federal income tax. Today the Tax Policy Center has the answer for you. In 2011 they estimate that 46% of Americans will pay no federal income tax. Donald Marron breaks this down:

  • 23% pay nothing because they’re poor. A couple making less than $19,000, for example, doesn’t owe anything after their $11,600 standard deduction and two exemptions of $3,700 each reduce their taxable income to zero. As Bob Williamson puts it, “The basic structure of the income tax simply exempts subsistence levels of income from tax.”
  • 10% are elderly and pay nothing because their Social Security benefits are exempt from federal income taxes.
  • 7% pay nothing thanks to provisions in the tax code designed to benefit low-income families: the earned income tax credit, the child credit, and the childcare credit account.

And the other 6%? Their taxes are zero for a variety of reasons: above-the-line deductions and tax-exempt interest; itemized deductions; education credits; other credits; and reduced rates on capital gains and dividends. TPC’s report has all the gruesome details.

But for the vast bulk of nonpayers, the explanation is simple: the federal tax code is designed not to tax the poor, the elderly, or low-income families with children, and there are more of these in America than you’d think. One way or another, it turns out, this accounts for about 40% of the country.

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Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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