Wealthy Americans earn about 50 percent of all income but pay nearly 70 percent of the federal tax burden, according to the latest analysis Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office — though the agency said the very richest have seen their share of taxes fall the last few years.
CBO looked at 2007 through 2009 and found the bottom 20 percent of American earners paid just three-tenths of a percent of the total tax burden, while the richest 20 percent paid 67.9 percent of taxes.
The top 1 percent, who President Obama has made a target during the presidential campaign, earns 13.4 percent of all pre-tax income, but paid 22.3 percent of taxes in 2009, CBO said. But that share was down 4.4 percentage points from 2007, CBO said in a finding likely to bolster Mr. Obama’s calls for them to pay more by letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire.
The big losers over the last few years were the rest of the well-off, especially those in the top fifth, who saw their tax burdens go up.
“Specifically, between 2007 and 2009, the share of taxes paid fell for the bottom three income quintiles, was close to flat for the fourth quintile, but rose for the highest quintile,” CBO said. “Within the top quintile, however, the shift was uneven; the share paid by the top percentile fell, and the share paid by the rest of the top quintile rose.”
The tax fight has risen to the top of this year’s presidential campaign, with Mr. Obama calling for the wealthy to pay more money both to lower the deficit and fund his new spending promises. He wants households making $250,000 or more a year to see their rates return to Clinton-era levels, though he has proposed a one-year extension of the rest of the Bush-era rates.
Republicans have countered that they want a one-year extension of all current rates in order to have breathing space to tackle a broader overhaul of the tax code.
CBO, the nonpartisan agency that serves as Congress’ official scorekeeper, said the current tax code is progressive chiefly because of the income-tax structure. On average, the lowest 40 percent of earners actually get money back through the income-tax code because of refundable tax credits.
Overall, the federal tax rates in 2008 and 2009 — at 18 percent and 17.4 percent — were the lowest in the last three decades, suggesting at least part of the reason the federal government has run record deficits in recent years.
In terms of actual earnings, the top 1 percent suffered the most in the recession, with their average earnings dropping from $1.9 million to $1.2 million. The lowest 20 percent saw their incomes drop from $23,900 to $23,500 during that time.
CBO included a wide range of measures of income including wages, employer-paid health insurance premiums and capital gains.
CBO said the top 1 percent earned an average of $1.9 million in pre-tax income in 2009, while the top 20 percent as a whole averaged $273,000. The fourth quintile averaged $98,400, the middle quintile averaged $67,600, the second quintile averaged $45,600 and the lowest quintile averaged $23,900 in income.