By Chuck Marr and Brian Highsmith
May 26, 2011
A recent finding by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation that 51 percent of households owed no federal income tax in 2009  is being used to advance the argument that low- and moderate-income families do not pay sufficient taxes. Apart from the fact that most of those who make this argument also call for maintaining or increasing all of the tax cuts of recent years for people at the top of the income scale, the 51 percent figure, its significance, and its policy implications are widely misunderstood.
The 51 percent figure is an anomaly that reflects the unique circumstances of 2009, when the recession greatly swelled the number of Americans with low incomes and when temporary tax cuts created by the 2009 Recovery Act — including the “Making Work Pay” tax credit and an exclusion from tax of the first $2,400 in unemployment benefits — were in effect. Together, these developments removed millions of Americans from the federal income tax rolls. Both of these temporary tax measures have since expired.
In a more typical year, 35 percent to 40 percent of households owe no federal income tax. In 2007, the figure was 37.9 percent. 
The 51 percent figure covers only the federal income tax and ignores the substantial amounts of other federal taxes — especially the payroll tax — that many of these households pay . As a result, it greatly overstates the share of households that do not pay any federal taxes. Data from the Urban Institute-Brookings Tax Policy Center show only about 14 percent of households paid neither federal income tax nor payroll tax in 2009, despite the high unemployment and temporary tax cuts that marked that year.
This percentage would be even lower if federal excise taxes on gasoline and other items were taken into account.
Most of the people who pay neither federal income tax nor payroll taxes are low-income people who are elderly, unable to work due to a serious disability, or students, most of whom subsequently become taxpayers. (In a year like 2009, this group also includes a significant number of people who have been unemployed the entire year and cannot find work.)
Moreover, low-income households as a whole do, in fact, pay federal taxes. Congressional Budget Office data show that the poorest fifth of households as a group paid an average of 4 percent of their incomes in federal taxes in 2007 (the latest year for which these data are available), not an insignificant amount given how modest these households’ incomes are — the poorest fifth of households had average income of $18,400 in 2007.  The next-to-the bottom fifth — those with incomes between $20,500 and $34,300 in 2007 — paid an average of 10 percent of their incomes in federal taxes.
Even these figures understate low-income households’ total tax burden, because these households also pay substantial state and local taxes. Data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy show that the poorest fifth of households paid a stunning 12.3 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes in 2010.
When all federal, state, and local taxes are taken into account,the bottom fifth of households paid 16.3 percent of their incomes in taxes, on average, in 2010. The second-poorest fifth paid 20.7 percent. 
It also is important to consider who the people are who don’t owe federal income tax in a given year.
Some 70 percent of people who owe no federal income tax in a given year are low-income working households. These people do pay payroll taxes, as well as federal excise taxes (and, as noted, state and local taxes). Most of these working households also pay federal income tax in other years, when their incomes are higher — which can be seen by looking at the low-income working households that receive the Earned Income Tax Credit (see next bullet).
The majority of EITC recipients receive the credit for only one or two years at a time, such as when their incomes drop due to a temporary layoff; they pay federal income tax in other years. In fact, EITC recipients pay much more in federal income taxes over time than they receive in EITC benefits. A leading study of this issue found that taxpayers who claimed the EITC at least once during an 18-year period paid a net $473 billion in federal income tax over that period (in 2006 dollars).  This finding shows that — while in any single year some taxpayers will receive refundable tax credits whose value may exceed their payroll tax liability — EITC recipients as a group pay significant federal income taxes over time in addition to the payroll and state and local taxes they pay each year.
The fact that most people who do not pay federal income tax in a given year do pay substantial amounts of other taxes, and also are net federal income taxpayers over time, belies the claim that households that don’t owe income tax will form bad policy judgments because they ostensibly “don’t have any skin in the game.”
The federal tax system is progressive overall, but state and local tax systems are regressive and undo a significant share of that progressivity. There is nothing wrong with having one part of the overall tax system shield low- and moderate-income households, who pay substantial amounts of other taxes and who generally pay federal income tax as well in other years.
To significantly increase the share of households that owe federal income tax, policymakers would have to take such steps as lowering the personal exemption or standard deduction — which would tax many low-income working families into, or deeper into, poverty; weakening the EITC or Child Tax Credit, which would significantly increase child poverty while reducing incentives for work over welfare; or paring back the tax exclusion for Social Security benefits, which would subject more seniors with small, fixed incomes to the income tax.
This analysis now explores these issues in more detail.