On Sunday, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Huntsman found himself in a virtual love-in with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann over, of all things, taxes. The paper asked Huntsman if "the half of American households no longer paying income tax—mainly working poor families and seniors—should be brought onto the income tax rolls."So who are these households that Republicans want to tax? The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution has recently conducted an analysis of "Why Some Tax Units Pay No Income Tax."
He agreed, crediting the GOP's current front-runner for vice president, Sen. Marco Rubio, with the insight that "we don't have enough people paying taxes in this country."
The Journal called this position the "new GOP orthodoxy," which it is. When he announced his presidential bid two weeks ago, Perry told a room of conservative activists and bloggers that "we're dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don't even pay any income tax." He was following on Bachmann, who'd just told the South Carolina Christian Chamber of Commerce the very same thing.
"Part of the problem is today, only 53 percent pay any federal income tax at all; 47 percent pay nothing," said Bachmann. "We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it's a dollar. Everyone should pay something, because we all benefit."
The Tax Policy Center found that of the households in the U.S. that pay no income taxes, about half do so because their incomes are so low that they fall below the standard exemption and deduction amounts. In 2010, the exemption and standard deduction for a single, non-elderly adult totaled $9,350; the exemptions and standard deduction for a non-elderly married couple filing a joint return totaled $18,700. The exemptions and standard deduction for elderly or blind filers or for households with children were somewhat higher. These income cut-offs are near or in some cases below the poverty threshold. For example, the poverty threshold for a single, non-elderly adult is $11,344; the threshold for a non-elderly married couple is $14,602.
Note that these exemptions and deductions can be claimed by nearly all taxpayers. Thus, most single, non-elderly taxpayers pay no federal income taxes on the first $9,350 of income, and most married, non-elderly taxpayers pay no federal income taxes on the first $18,700.
The other half of households that currently pay no income taxes do so because of special provisions and breaks in the tax code, which are sometimes referred to as "tax expenditures" or loopholes. One of the biggest tax breaks in the tax code is that a portion of Social Security benefits is excluded from taxable income. The Tax Policy Center calculates that special provisions for the elderly (the Social Security exclusion and the slightly larger standard deduction) account four out of nine households that owe no taxes because of tax expenditures.
There are also special provisions for households with children (e.g., the child tax credit) and the working poor (e.g., the Earned Income Tax Credit). These provisions account just under another third of the households that owe no taxes because of tax expenditures. Some means-tested cash transfers, such as Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is not treated as taxable. These exclusions account for another six percent of households.
If we put these figures together, at least 90% of the households that are not paying federal income taxes are either have very low incomes or have somewhat higher incomes but are elderly or have children. Indeed, the Tax Policy Center calculates that 80% of the households that escape federal income taxation have incomes below $30,000.
Of the other households that escape federal income taxation, most do so because of policies that Republicans favor, including the mortgage interest deduction and the special treatment of capital gains and dividend income.
Taxes for some of these "no tax" households are scheduled to increase in coming years. In particular, the tax package that was approved last December extended some credits for working and poor families. Under the current law and under the Obama administration's budget proposals, the proportion of people paying some taxes would rise. So a tax increase is on the way.