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Study: 400 Richest Families Pay Lower Tax Rate Than Middle Class

Ruth Singleton
Published Date:
Oct 10, 2019

An analysis by two economics professors has found that, as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, America's 400 richest families now pay taxes at a lower rate than people in the middle class, according to CBS News. This finding is the centerpiece of The Triumph of Injustice, a book by the professors, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley, to be published on Oct. 15.

The professors found that, factoring in all federal, state and local taxes, those ultra-wealthy households pay a total rate of about 23 percent, which is less than the 24.2 percent rate paid by the bottom half of all households—which includes many in the middle class. They found that the richest families also pay a lower rate than those in the upper middle class and even those in the top 1 percent, who pay closer to 30 percent of their income in taxes.

"In 1970, the richest Americans paid, all taxes included, more than 50% of their income in taxes, twice as much as working-class individuals," they write in their book. "In 2018, following the Trump tax reform, and for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less than steel workers, schoolteachers and retirees."

According to Saez and Zucman, the U.S. tax system is creating an "inequality spiral." That means that as the rich get richer, they are able to shape public policies to extract further tax breaks and other benefits, boosting their wealth and political clout. Saez and Zucman propose a new national income tax that would tax all income—whether from labor, capital or other sources—as a supplement to the existing income tax. Along with Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—and 18 billionaires—they also favor a wealth tax.
Another recent study suggests that a wealth tax theoretically could be better for the economy than the current tax on capital income. That study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reasoned that under capital income taxation, "entrepreneurs who are more productive, and therefore generate more income, pay higher taxes" while, under a wealth tax, productivity is taken out of the equation entirely, which shifts the burden toward unproductive entrepreneurs and raises the savings rate for the productive ones.

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