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  • In Pictures: How Much the Top Earners Already Pay in Taxes

    America has heard a lot of talk about the “Buffett Rule” — President Barack Obama’s plan to make the tax code more “fair” by permanently raising taxes by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, with most of the burden falling on families and businesses earning more than $250,000 per year. But if he wants to talk about “fairness,” he should look at how much top income earners already pay in taxes, as the chart below shows:

    In a new paper, Heritage’s Curtis Dubay explains that the supposed “fairness” of the new rule is anything but fair:

    To President Obama, it is “fair” to raise taxes on families and businesses earning more than $250,000 a year by raising their income tax rates and limiting their deductions. That must also mean he believes that they currently pay too little in taxes.

    Yet the data show the highest-earning families and businesses already pay the lion’s share of the federal income tax burden. According to the IRS, the top 1 percent of income earners—those earning more than $380,000 in 2008—paid more than 38 percent of all federal income taxes while earning 20 percent of all income. The top 10 percent ($114,000 and above) earned 45 percent of income and paid 70 percent of all taxes. At the same time, the bottom 50 percent of income earners—those earning less than $33,000—earned 13 percent of all income and paid less than 3 percent of federal income taxes.

    Read more of Dubay’s paper, “The Buffett Rule: Fair to No One,” at Heritage.org.

    Posted in Featured [slideshow_deploy]

    58 Responses to In Pictures: How Much the Top Earners Already Pay in Taxes

    1. LindaC01 says:

      Facts, such as these, are totally irrelevant to the "Tax the Rich" crowd. You ask "What would be done with any extra revenues incurred by taxing the rich at a higher rate?" and you never get a definite answer. Even if it went solely to the debt, it would not make any significant dent.

      Another point is if you confiscate the wealth of the rich, eventually they will not have any wealth left, and will no longer be rich, then who does the entitlement crowd go after?

      • patty says:

        The bottom 50% are either too dume or know they have a good thing going to want to understand. And yes, if you keep taking from the top earners, next thing you know there isn't anything to take and then where are those bottom feeders going.

        • Chuck says:

          This is as disingenuous as it gets. The graph is meaningless. The fair comparison would be income earned to taxes paid. Sure the top 1% pay the lion's share of taxes — but that's because that where more than the lion's share of wealth is.

          • Bobbie says:

            so why aren't people inspired to gain more wealth independently, to increase that 1% instead of removing the American dream altogether or instead of demanding to steal from American's that make the necessary steps to achieve their American dream? All increase taxes goes to grow more government! PERIOD! America needs limited government with duties that are efficiently accommodating to their oath and no more?
            The more government the less freedom!

            • RightofCenterLeft says:

              You can't increase the 1%. Also, to agree with one of the above posters, this graph is meaningless. There a numerous ways to cut the numbers, but a much more meaningful comparison would be percent of taxes versus wealth controlled or total annual income.

      • Greg says:

        Except the top 10% have over 80% of the wealth, so them paying 70% of the taxes (and that's only federal income tax) is actually quite a bit less than their fair share. No one in the "Save the poor Rich from Taxes" crowd ever talks about those facts. Add in taxes like sales tax and other taxes that have a greater affect on lower income people, and the burden on middle and lower class is even worse.

        The rich will never run out of money. They've been handed disproportionately more and more of it since the Reagan administration. The wealthy could pay all the taxes, and it would take years to restore the distribution of wealth in this country to a healthy level, and repair all the damage of the last 3 decades of corporate entitlement, tax cuts for the rich, and skyrocketing pay scales at the top while the pay for everyone else has stagnated or fallen, as they've horded a greater and greater percentage of the nation's wealth.

        • Bobbie says:

          are you kidding, Greg? The rich will never run out of money? the only "skyrocketing pay scales" is what those in government are thieving from the tax payers to help the government selves. Profit limit on private sector businesses is ludicrous! The private sector doesn't expense the tax payers!

          Why should anyone pay anything to government that goes beyond the government's constitutional order? You are being totally misled! It's only going to grow more government. How about increasing the wealth percentage which, in the private sector, can only happen by reducing government expense, instead of losing wealth all together? My children would certainly like to work to earn wealth that they can spend at their discretion, not government's handouts. Please open your mind!

        • dexter60 says:

          Without thinking, that all sounds pretty good — but since our 'government' subsidizes consumption and throttles production, at the same time it is the biggest borrower and biggest spender, producing nothing but crises — I get the feeling that we'll just have to see if lawyers can starve like any other being — ok?
          After all, this scale of fraud is not a crime is it.
          Taxes fees and regulations built this country, eh?
          As for "The rich will never run out of money." don't Bogart that joint my friend.

        • Tom says:

          They have been handed dispoporionately more or they earned it?

    2. Bobbie says:

      Good one, LindaC01! If people would just use their heads to think to themselves, why businesses MOVE overseas? why would businesses start here and not stay here? Then if they could gather considerations like government impositions that makes it difficult to conduct business IN America, their minds may understand REASON! And you're right, singling out the rich as if they aren't apart of America or Obama's "we" as Americans, is a terrible, ugly inconvenient truth. The entitlement crowd seems to think they'll be getting a check to sustain a government promoted livelihood? Once obama's got the wealth of others, no one will be getting A THING except MORE GOVERNMENT! Obama says tax the rich because he doesn't want ANYONE TO LIVE AN AMERICAN DREAM OF THEIR OWN!!!…not without government approval!

    3. Scott says:

      Can you make a graphic that maps this against the proportion of income that was earned? If the top 10% earned a mere 50% of the income of the country, this is a lopsided travesty indeed. If they earned 99% of the income, they are paying less than the rate of normal people.

      The important variables aren't all gathered in one place. This doesn't help me reach a conclusion.

      • Jim50 says:

        My conclusion is Snotty knows this information but just wants to whine.

        Do the Rich Avoid Taxes? http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/do-the-rich-avoid-

        IRS Data Show Most Millionaires Pay Taxes at Higher Rate Than Middle Class http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/09/20/irs-da

      • patty says:

        You know if you are on the top or bottom. I don't think you want a conclusion unless it jives with your thinking.

      • Rufus says:

        It is simple math, not hard to figure out. From the paragraph above, the Top 1% are paying 38% of the tax while earning 20% of the income for a ratio of 1.9 tax/income. The Top 10% are paying 70% of the tax while earning 45% of the income: ratio = 1.55. The bottom 50% pay 3% while earning 13%. Ratio of 0.23. So the richest 1% and 10% respectively pay at a ratios of 826% and 673% higher than the bottom 50%. Just how much higher is necessary to make it "fair"? Also, just to make it very clear, people earning $113K a year who are part of the top 10% are NOT rich.

        • Josh says:

          It's not that simple, in fact, it is far more complicated than one might think. If you narrow the issue down to percentages and percentage ratio's, then you are making a deduction based on a very narrow view of the big picture and this can cause the unfortunate effect of skewed perception. I would be much more inclined to feel educated by this graphic if there were more information presented. There are 2 key pieces of information that come to mind, though there are more pieces missing than I can count on my fingers and toes, I don't have time to right a novel right now. One being the percentage of income, for each of these categories of income earners, that was paid into the federal income tax pool. And, the second being the dollar amount of income for each bracket that those percentages are based off of. If you have time to research and post these facts from a credible source, maybe I might learn something…maybe you might as well…

      • For My Liberty says:

        Did you miss this???

        "According to the IRS, the top 1 percent of income earners—those earning more than $380,000 in 2008—paid more than 38 percent of all federal income taxes while earning 20 percent of all income. "

      • Joe says:

        READ! Don't just look at the pretty chart "The top 10 percent ($114,000 and above) earned 45 percent of income and paid 70 percent of all taxes." "Lopsided travesty" – at least you got that right.

      • Rick says:

        they "EARNED" more than 50% of the income, it was not "Given" to them…If you want to EARN more income the opportunity is the same for you as for the vast majority of these people….What is stopping you from EARNING more? Ask yourself that simple question…did it ever occur to you that most of these people are self employed and work there butts off to EARN the most money possible?

      • Adam says:

        Don't worry, Heritage Foundation will answer your question by defining income as what you get on a paycheck, rather than other sources of income.

    4. jj1962hemi says:

      Team Heritage:

      I got this note below from a bright left-leaning friend in response to the HF chart about how rising taxes reduces tax receipts: JJ, see this Heritage Foundation chart: http://www.heritage.org/budgetchartbook/income-ta

      Note that it does not show what it purports to show, namely that raising tax rates does not raise tax receipts. Note that there are just …two tax hikes during the entire history of this chart: the late 1960s, and 1990-93. In both cases, receipts as a percentage of GDP either increased or remained constant in the years afterward, and total tax receipts from individual federal income taxes actually mushroomed in both cases, because GDP was growing. The HF people would have us believe that tax hikes did NOT increase total tax receipts — "Increasing Tax Rates Does Not Necessarily Lead to Higher Income Tax Receipts" — which is just a lie. In the only two cases in which taxes were hiked, receipts as a % of GDP stayed the same or increased during a period of increasing GDP, which means growth in receipts from individual income taxes.

      • Rufus says:

        Yes, I think you have captured it: "… increased during a period of increasing GDP…" However, during those periods we had real GDP growth and the government spending did not make up such a huge % of the economy. So, the real question at this stage of the game is how increasing taxes will boost GDP? Or, how will additional deficit spending boost GDP. Neither will, and the whole "tax the rich" argument is just a political distraction from the reality that government spending has to be reduced. Less park ranger, less health care, less defense, less whatever. Sorry, we can't afford it and confiscating the incomes of those who are miraculously still employed in this increasingly socialist economy isn't the answer.

    5. jj1962hemi says:


      Also, the flatness of the line for "Individual Income Taxes as a % of GDP" is mainly an artifact of the scale of the chart. That's a cool trick if you want to make a quantity appear to be unchanging — make the scale of the chart huge, 0-100, and a quantity that is actually declining by 20% over the period (from 7.8% to 6.3, an all-time low for the entire period), appears not to have changed much at all.

      The writer of your article is correct to say that raising tax rates does not necessarily lead to a straight-line increase in revenue as a % of GDP. But if he's saying it does not increase revenues, or if he's saying that lowering tax rates doesn't decrease revenues… he's just lying.

    6. jj1962hemi says:


      Bottom line, we are at a 70-year low in federal taxes as a % of GDP. The chart in the article you cite stopped its analysis at 2002, because the massive decline in taxes as a % of GDP since then — about a third, from 9.4% to 6.3%, as a direct result of the BUsh tax cuts — messes with his narrative of how lowering taxes always magically keeps tax receipts just as high as ever.

      • eagle275 says:

        have any of you lib geniouses ever seen a homeless guy give someone a job?

      • JBS says:

        Regarding the reasons that "we are at a 70-year low in federal taxes as a % of GDP" could be that GDP has been made artificially high by the level of government spending. Remember, GDP=Private Consumption + Gross Investments + Government Spending + (Exports-Imports). So with the increases in Government (non-tax paying component of GDP) spending, coupled with a weak/decline in the remaining components of GDP, theoretically, taxes as a % of GDP could continue to decline. IMO, the real problem is that GDP includes Government Spending, as if it really is part of Gross Domestic Product. All Government Spending does is barrow from future growth… but that’s just my $.02 (or my $20 after adjusting for devaluation of the USD).

    7. jj1962hemi says:


      Granted, we are also at a post-WWII high in federal spending as a % of GDP, and that's unsustainable over even the medium term — but there's a huge factor at play that makes the low-tax number even far lower than it appears, and the high-spending number not quite as high. And that is the fact that we are still climbing back from the massive 6 percent GDP shrinkage of 2009. So ABSOLUTE spending has not leaped nearly as much as it appears when it is expressed as a % of a depressed GDP. But TAXES as a % of GDP would be expected to be constant, because taxes should rise and fall with GDP – but even in this depressed GDP environment, they have shriveled and are the lowest we've seen in 70 years.

    8. jj1962hemi says:

      Thanks for reading! These are rebuttals to my typical stance, much of which is supported by HF's work. I think there are other eeasons to keep taxes low and flatter, particularly the fact that we are building a voting group with "no skin in the game." I just want us to always be honest.

      I would love some feedback to continue my dialog with this good guy with whom I typically disagree.


      • John Pisula says:

        @jj — If you go to the link for the IRS stats as of latest info (2008) you will see that the top 1% earn 20% of AGI BUT PAY 38% of total taxes; top 25% earn 67% BUT PAY 86%; top 50% earn 87% BUT pay 97% of all taxes.

        Use the link (had to manually enter as it isn't a hot link) at the bottom of the HF chart.

      • John Pisula says:

        @jj — I followed the link for the IRS to get the full stats from 2008, latest info. It's nothing new, just an update on the overall taxes.

        The top 1% earned 20% BUT PAY 38% of taxes; the top 5% earn 35% BUT PAY 59% of taxes; teh top 50% earn 86% BUT PAY 97% of all taxes.

        It is not out of liine with historical norms! Just sayin'.

      • Don says:

        Your friend seems to think that raising "Income" Tax Rates brings a rise in tax receipts. He is correct, if he is only looking at income tax receipts. Unless people took a pay cut to avoid paying more income tax.
        What I have heard and was taught in college economics, is that, lowering "income" tax rates means more money in the hands of consumers. They will then buy items they want in addition to the items they need. This generates more "sales" tax, which is collected and added to the overall tax receipts.

      • Don says:

        People buying items, also generates jobs. Those wanted items (LCD television for example) have to have a lot of different hands on them. Everyone gets paid for that work. I know that it is made in Asia somewhere, but the dock workers still handle it. Truckers still haul it to distribution points, Warehouse workers stage it for delivery, and so on. More taxes for government projects do not create sustainable jobs. If new tax receipts from tax increases were to go to the DEBT and not the deficit or projects, I would support it. For my childrens and my grandchilds sake. Take a look at this YouYube video to see the crisis facing us that nobody wants to talk about. http://www.youtube.com/embed/VtVbUmcQSuk
        You will have to cut and paste ti into your browser. Ask your friend to watch this and ask for his comments. This has nothing to do with Left or Right, but American.

    9. Zoe Tyler says:

      I would be very interested in any comment or new article that explains why the 11-25% group pay more than the 6-10% group and the same as the 26-50% group. Especially since the tax rates are graduated based on income.

      I would also be interested in the actual income amounts these percentages relate to so people can see where their income level is.

      Third, I've not seen anything discussing the effect of higher taxes on the wealthy on the economies and social conditions of other countries. My first thought was Great Britain, whose upper class have been financially impacted heavily since WWII, but any real life comparison or even 'object lesson' would be helpful to evaluate the long term effect of the desires of the minority (higher taxes).

      • Mike says:

        Zoe, the 11-25% group contains 15% of the taxpayers, whereas the 6-10% group only has 5% of them. The 11-25% group pays more mainly because it has three times as many taxpayers.

        Similarly, the 26-50% group has five times as many taxpayers as the 6-10% group. The 26-50% group pays about the same amount as the 6-10% group, but each taxpayer in that group pays (on average) only 1/5 as much.

      • broomsticks says:

        To answer your first question simply, there are ~3 times as many earners in the 11-25% group as there are in the 6-10% group, so it shouldn't be a surprise that this larger group of people collectively pay a 1.5X greater share of the total taxes. As a result, based on the numbers presented, the "average" earner in the 6-10 group pays approximately 2 times (in actual $) what the average earner in the 11-25 group pays, which in itself is an obvious statistic (you earn more $, therefore you pay more tax $).

      • Jim says:

        The simple answer is that the people in the 6-10% group are most likely 2 income families that own a home, have retirement accounts, day care expenses, etc. and can take full advantage of most of the tax breaks on the 1040 itemized return.
        It would definately be interesting to have a break down of returns by income percentage compared against number actual income earners and dependents on the return.
        when they "earners" above, it is by return, not by person, so it can be very misleading. I would be the majority of returns in the 2 through 10% brackets are 2 income returns.

    10. Todd S. says:

      For maximum effect, I think you need to include Social Security and Medicare taxes as well. The constant refrain I hear when I present this type of evidence to my left-leaning friends and family is "but everyone pays Social Security taxes!"

    11. John says:

      Don't have a lot of time, but can debunk one comment for the "bright left-leaning friend" on the issue of tax receipts as % of GDP:

      The current US federal income tax burden is more heavily skewed toward "the rich." That is compared to prior US history and even compared to West Europe. The incomes of the rich go up and down with the economy more than incomes of the middle class or lower class. Therefore, tax receipts go up and down more extremely than with a broader tax base.

      Some proof: with the same income tax rates as today, federal revenue in 2007 was 18% to 18.5% of GDP, which is the long-run average.

      Low tax receipts today are due to low economic activity, over-reliance on the rich, and the payroll tax holiday. The "bright left-leaning friend" doesn't know as much as he/she thinks.

    12. B. George Saloom says:

      This is a good chart; but I would like to see this information depicted in another manner. Instead of %s, could you show actual dollars both in income (top of graph) and in taxes paid ? May have to be scaled; but I think this would really tell us the potential dollars "available" for taxation. Even if those that make less than the $33,000 paid some (let's say just 10%) (like a flat tax for all), I believe the Treasury Coffers would be strengthen significantly (I could be wrong).

      B. George Saloom

    13. Freda Olson says:

      I was always brought up that EVERYONE IS EQUAL! Yet, the taxes we are forced to pay are not equal….
      I was always told: Do not Discriminate, Yet it's Discrimation to tax everyone differently just because of the lifestyle they have…Not legal in my eyes…
      I say banish taxes altogether and let us spend OUR HARD EARNED MONEY OUR WAY…NOT THE WAYS OF CONGRESS….

      • Freda Olson says:

        CONTINUED: When an earthquake strikes I read where someone thought of it as: IT'S OUR FOREFATHERS TURNIN' OVER IN THEIR GRAVES! OK, OFF TO WORK TO SUPPORT THOSE WHO CAN'T OR DON'T WANT TO WORK…OH MY ACHIN' BONES….But to bad so sad for me…I'll be dead someday and THEY WIN….ALL THE MONEY THAT WE GAVE THEM AND NO REFUNDS OF WHAT WE DIDN'T USE….

    14. Cantmakethisup says:

      The rich should give up some of that money and give the rest of us a chance to pay more taxes.

    15. Woody says:

      Historically, no society has been able to collect taxes above approximately 20% of GDP. Excessive taxes above this point lead to Rich flight, less investment, less economic activity, etc. So, no matter how high the tax rates go, it will not lead to an increase in tax receipts.

    16. Scott says:

      I usually hear liberals respond to these figures in this way: Yes, the top 1% pay 38% of the taxes, but they control 70% of the wealth. Therefore they need to be taxed more.
      I have seen some figures that showed how much of the total wealth was "controlled" by those top people, and it was actually less than the share of the tax burden they pay. I don't recall where I saw this, but it would be really helpful for an article like this to include that information also.

      • carey says:

        That would be helpful to find… and good luck finding it! Unfortunately, that would require some doctored numbers and skewed statistics. You can go to the CBO's website and find these numbers quite easily. Then you will see that this is in fact correct. Its just nicer for those spewing this "unfair" crap to put out half the story or put things in % form that doesn't relate the direct variables.

    17. Vino says:

      what ever way you cut it…I still don't like Obama…

    18. steve says:

      How much did the top earners earn of the economic pie? Just curious…

      I expect Bill Gates to pay more than my maid. I should pay more than my maid.

      I don't advocate changing the tax code except on Sen Kerry's wife.

    19. sally says:

      I run an LLC and when we are busy busting our butts 24/7 AND the Customer PAYS then we get slammed by Uncle Sam. We are in the medical field and we had one client that wanted to pay by Pay Pal? My sister on unemployment has take trips and worked out at the gym "in her spare time of job seeking." Go fiigure.

    20. Joanne says:

      Lower the tax rates and get people back to work. Then we will have a larger base paying taxes and consequently more taxes revenues. But also stop the wreckless, unconstitutional spending.

    21. smoke and mirrors says:

      This analysis is misleading. Of course, if you earn more, you pay more taxes. What we are forgetting is what percentage of earned income is taxed? For example, if you earn $20,000., then what percentage of your income is taxed, versus an income of $200,000.? When viewed in this way, lower income households and companies tend to pay a higher percentage of their total income in taxes than those with higher incomes. Also, those with higher incomes have more tax deductions available to them than their not so fortunate counterparts, which makes it even more unfair. Blaming the rich though, is pointless; they provide most of the jobs that are left in this country. Are we going to keep taxing them out of the country? Going to a 10% or lower flat rate tax and eliminating all IRS tax regulations makes more sense. It will save millions (no maybe billions), because it takes a lot of money to write, regulate, and enforce all those rules.

    22. Dan says:

      Well, not easy to pay taxes when you're unemployed…
      Secondly, claim all you want that the wealthy pay too much in taxes, but even with the payroll taxcut, I have to assume that while earning $11 an hour, I lose 40% to taxes, it begs the question, is the wealthy paying anywhere close that that much of their paychecks to taxes? I'd really like to know because it doesn't really matter how much of the nation's taxes they're paying, they can fire 5,000 workers to inflate those numbers anyways.

      • dmc says:

        Based on about $70,000 gross income, only about 15% is federal income tax, the rest is social security, medicare, state and locality taxes. When you file your taxes and get a refund, that 15% decreases! For example, our tax rate last year, after claiming all deductions available and getting a refund, was only about 2.5%.

    23. iPick says:

      Of course, government needs to be smaller, more efficient, and require less revenue. But I'm tired of hearing criticism of the higher income earners not paying "their share". What I don't understand is how the lower income pay no taxes (get it all back as a refund), often as renters pay no property tax, yet get the benefits of all the services the rest of us pay for. I am not getting a refund this year…in fact will pay over $3k additional federal tax…but hear about all the people with low income getting all their taxes back. We're all citizens, everyone needs to pay something.

    24. Edward Slusarski says:


    25. Ryan Miller says:

      The fact that the top 10% of earners in this country pay 70% in taxes but own 80% of the wealth says something. This chart seems to actually help the current argument for increasing the burden on the top 10%.

    26. greg says:

      You folks really think the top 1% are sitting there earning paychecks and paying 'income tax?' Are you kidding me……does the word, dividends and 15% capital gains taxes mean anything……..The upper percent of the top 1%, derive I thought I read around 19% of their 'income' from actual work. Man, they sure have the majority of the country and middle class fooled…….I guess the bottom line is executive compensation is in the 300 to 500:1 ratio to the factory floor worker and I've read that the top 1%-20% of top earners control 85% of the entire wealth of this country. I'm not for socialism, but this just doesn't seem like a democracy and what the founding fathers envisioned……..

    27. Margaret says:

      After a little research, I discoverd that the top 10% own 80% of the wealth in the country. And according to this blog they paid 70% of the FIT. So in order to align their taxes to their wealth, they would have to pay 10% more in taxes. If you think about it, it really is only a 3% increase, or something to that effect (assuming they pay 30% in FIT).

    28. Joe says:

      Wait a minute. Republicans always told us the top 1% paid 90% of the taxes. Anyone who believed that lie is a damn fool. The top 10% paid 40% of the taxes. The middle class pays the brunt.

    29. I wonder if the rich will finally pay their "fair share" if Obama is re-elected…: /

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