The highest marginal tax rates are faced not by the very rich, but by low-income families. The reason? In addition to direct taxation, low-income wage earners find they lose means tested welfare benefits when they earn higher incomes. As Nancy Folbre at Economix explains:
As a result of losing eligibility for means-tested benefits, low-income and middle-income families sometimes experience much higher marginal effective tax rates (sometimes exceeding 90 percent) than those at the top of the income distribution.
But she then goes on to criticize fellow blogger Casey Mulligan, who estimates that a major reason for our sluggish growth and as much as half of the excess unemployment we are experiencing on these high marginal tax rates. Her complaint: Mulligan incudes Social Security payroll taxes in the calculation of the overall marginal tax rate, but ignores the future benefits those taxes give rise to.
As it turns out, Folbre’s criticism was addressed in a study for the National Center for Policy Analysis by Jagadeesh Gokhale, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, and Alexi Sluchynsky (NBER version here.) The authors explicitly incorporate future Social Security benefits as well as current payroll taxes to calculate lifetime marginal tax rates.
Findings below the fold.
This is from the Executive Summary:
By incorporating all of the fiscal policies that affect households through time, our model is able to calculate the lifetime consequences of a lifetime of employment. We conclude that:
- The overall fiscal system is highly progressive, particularly at the low end of the income distribution.
- Americans at every income level face a lifetime marginal net tax rate greater than 50 percent.
- That is, for every dollar they earn, they will lose more than 50 cents in higher taxes and reduced transfer benefits.
Furthermore, the highest marginal net tax rates are not imposed on the highest-income families. They are imposed on those with the lowest earnings. For example:
- At two times the minimum wage ($42,800), working couples get to keep less than 30 cents out of each dollar they earn.
- At 1.5 times the minimum wage ($32,100), they get to keep less than 20 cents out of each dollar they earn.
- By contrast, a couple earning $200,000 a year gets to keep 44 cents.