Basically stealing my post today from Fred Clark, who links to two excellent posts by Kevin Drum dismantling the oft-repeated lie, most recently trumpeted by supposed pastor Rick Warren, that “half of all Americans pay no taxes.”
Drum first points out that it’s simply not true. All Americans pay taxes — though some don’t pay federal income tax, a tax that falls disproportionately on the wealthy, as it was designed to do. Drum has a nifty graph showing the distribution of total taxes by income quintile:
From the Tax Foundation, an organization that even conservatives ought to be willing to credit, here’s a report from a few years ago showing the total tax burden on various income groups in America:
…The blue bars don’t cherry pick just the federal income tax to make a dumb partisan talking point; they show how much each group actually pays in total taxes. Bottom line: Poor people pay less in taxes than rich people, as they should, but it’s very far from zero.
But more importantly for people like Warren, whose putative mandate is to serve the least of these brothers and sisters of Christ, we should ask why nearly half of Americans pay no federal income tax. Is it because they’re a bunch of devious bastards who’ve somehow engineered massive, pointless tax cuts for themselves and shifted the bill to the rest of us? (Hint: No.)
Drum points us to this post by Bob Williams at the Tax Policy Center for an explanation:
[A]bout half of people who don’t owe income tax are off the rolls not because they take advantage of tax breaks but rather because they have low incomes. For example, a couple with two children earning less than $26,400 will pay no federal income tax this year because their $11,600 standard deduction and four exemptions of $3,700 each reduce their taxable income to zero. The basic structure of the income tax simply exempts subsistence levels of income from tax.
(By the way, this applies to everybody, not just the poor — you and me and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the Koch Brothers. None of us pays any taxes on the first several thousand dollars.)
What about the rest of the untaxed households, the 23 percent of households who don’t pay income tax because of particular tax breaks? …Three-fourths of those households pay no income tax because of provisions that benefit senior citizens and low-income working families with children. Those provisions include the exclusion of some Social Security benefits from taxable income, the tax credit and extra standard deduction for the elderly, and the child, earned income, and childcare tax credits that primarily help low-income workers with children…. Extending the example offered above, the couple could earn an additional $19,375 without paying income tax because their pre-credit tax liability of $2,056 would be wiped out by a $2,000 child tax credit and $57 of EITC.
That means the people who aren’t paying federal income tax are the desperately poor, old people, and working-class families with kids. We ought, perhaps, to ask why 23% of Americans fall into in the first category, i.e., living at “subsistence levels.” We ought to ask whether there are specific social policies that have led to a quarter of Americans living in real poverty, and if so, what to do about that. (Other than browbeat them for not paying taxes.)
Here’s another, related fact-check by Fred Clark, this one aimed at the common misconception that Jesus said that “The poor you will always have with you,” as though he were commenting on a fact of nature, like, “The sun will always rise in the east.” In fact, Jesus was probably alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads:
For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’
But, Clark writes, look at the beginning of Deut 15, because it also says
[T]here shall be no poor among you; for the LORD shall greatly bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it:
Only if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all these commandments which I command thee this day.
In other words, God seems to be saying that if the Israelites obey Him (in the context of this passage, that means debt forgiveness, an idea I haven’t heard a lot of modern preachers clamoring for), there will be no poor among them. But they don’t, so there are.
As a non-believer, I happen to think we can do better than the Deuteronomical standard, which only extends debt forgiveness to the “brethren” of one particular tribe, pointedly excluding “foreigners.” But Clark’s point is that if there’s poverty, that’s not because of an immutable decree of the Lord — it’s because we’ve failed to enact structural solutions like periodic debt forgiveness.
By the way, no mention is made of self-righteously administered charity. Just structural solutions.
Rick Warren, take note.