The most important debates in U.S. politics concern the size and role of government, as the polarized parties offer contrasting paths forward. Republicans urge holding the line on taxes and limiting domestic expenditures. Democrats aim to preserve government functions and make some new investments—and call for tax increases to support these choices. As citizens and analysts weigh these options, it helps to put U.S. fiscal policy in cross-national perspective. Compared with other developed countries, the United States has very low taxes, does little to fight inequality, and has an extraordinarily complex tax code that undermines faith in the system. (more…)
Image by Ken Teegardin via Flickr
“Almost half of all Americans pay no taxes!” That’s the claim bandied about in elections and overheated television talk-fests. It refers only to federal income taxes, from which various groups are exempt. But many other taxes are also collected at the federal, state, and local levels. When all kinds of taxes are added up, almost all Americans pay substantial amounts. In fact, poor and middle-income people frequently fork over higher shares of their incomes than the very rich.
Federal Income and Payroll Taxes
The U.S. federal government relies on two big taxes collected from large numbers of Americans: the federal income tax and payroll taxes regularly deducted from wages and salaries to cover Social Security and Medicare benefits. Income and payroll taxes each contribute about 40% of federal revenues. Almost half of U.S. households currently do not owe federal income taxes, but over three-fifths of these “non-filers” are workers who contribute very substantial payroll taxes. For example, Americans making the lowest incomes pay nearly 9% of their wages in payroll taxes, about the same percentage as middle-income workers pay.
Only about 17% of American households pay neither income nor payroll taxes, because they are headed by people in special sub-groups:
- Elderly men and women, who previously contributed payroll taxes during their working lives, living on their Social Security benefits.
- Students or disabled individuals.
- Workers unable to find jobs. During the recent recession, the numbers of long-term unemployed people not filing income tax returns went up.
- Active-duty members of the U.S. military, who do not have to pay taxes on their combat pay and do not owe income tax after having been deployed. (more…)
Across the United States, tens of millions of residents have been arrested for violating marijuana laws. Arrests for offenses related to marijuana have increased dramatically since 1992. In 2010 alone, there were 853,838 arrests. Remarkably, more than half of all drug-related arrests that year involved marijuana alone. And almost nine of every ten people apprehended for marijuana offenses are charged with mere possession, not sales or distribution.
America’s efforts to reduce marijuana use over the past four decades have largely depended on arrest, imprisonment, incarceration—and, recently, the seizure of private property through asset forfeiture laws. The aim of such heavy legal firepower is to deter potential consumers, reduce marijuana use, limit availability, and increase the price of the drug. But existing research suggests that these goals have not been achieved. Instead, prices have declined and increasingly potent marijuana has become more readily available to growing numbers of users—even as arrests have climbed. Developments are not the same in all states and localities, but overall there is no clear indication that intensified enforcement decreases marijuana use. (more…)
Health reform has many popular parts—rules against insurance company abuses; subsidies and tax credits to make health coverage affordable for millions; improvements in Medicare. But controversy persists about the “individual mandate” rule—which says that everyone must either have health insurance coverage or pay a fine.
Attacks have intensified since the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, because the mandate fine was declared a valid exercise of the taxing power assigned by the Constitution to the federal government. Opponents of health reform denounce the mandate as “tyranny” and say that it amounts to a big “middle class tax increase.”