Making the rich pay their fair share was the idea behind the income
tax. But who pays depends on who has political power.
Nothing is certain in life except taxes and class struggle. And nothing
illustrates the meaning of that old-fashioned term "class struggle" better than
No one likes to pay taxes. But thats where the similarity
ends. The wealthy can afford to pay taxes but would rather have workers lighten their load
by paying a greater share of the tax burden. Living from paycheck to paycheck, working
people have a hard time paying more than their fair share.
The rich would have us think that lower taxes for them are actually
good for us. "The prosperity of the lower and middle classes depends upon the
good fortune and light taxes of the rich," said multi-millionaire Andrew Mellon,
treasury secretary under Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. He
probably believed it, too. The same message is repeated today.
Politics is often about who gets handed the tax bill. Rush Limbaugh
says, "Its time to get serious about raising taxes on the poor." UE
advocates reduced taxes on working-class Americans and higher taxes on the wealthy and
To put it another way: "One class struggles to throw the burden off
its own shoulders. If they succeed, of course, it must fall upon others. They also, in
turn, labor to get rid of it, and finally the load falls upon those who will not or cannot
make a successful effort for relief."
Thats how a Supreme Court justice summed up the debate a century
ago, when unions and labor parties were demanding that the United States establish an
It may sometimes seem difficult to believe today, but the income tax was
(and still is) the best device for placing the tax burden on those with the money.
Back in the 1830s, rich men taxed working men for the privilege of voting
and buying their tools and clothing. The nations first labor parties argued in favor
of replacing poll and sales taxes with taxes on income, property and bonds.
Fifty years later, union-backed parties advocated a graduated income tax.
Then came the Peoples Party, a coalition of debt-weary farmers, factory
workers and miners also known as the Populists. They likewise called for a graduated
income tax to make the wealthy pay their share of the cost of our national government. In
the early 1890s, the Populists elected members of Congress, governors and state
legislators; the Populist presidential candidate carried three states in 1892.
Political pressure for change forced Congress in 1894 to enact an income
The wealthy were horrified. The Supreme Court declared the act
unconstitutional. More years of political pressure led to the adoption in 1913 of the
Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed the federal government to levy taxes on personal
The income tax was (and, to some extent, still is) graduated and progressive
meaning that in stages, the tax rate is higher on larger incomes. Back in 1913,
workers and farmers thought this made good sense. The robber barons who had become
fabulously wealthy by looting the nations resources and exploiting labor ought to be
required to give back some of their ill-gotten gains.
ONLY THE RICH
Now heres a fact worth remembering: when the income tax first went
into effect, only the rich paid.
In 1941 the rich (the owners and managers of industry) paid 55 percent of
all federal taxes and workers 45 percent.
Exemptions excluded most workers from taxation until the 1940s. Even in
1944, at the height of wartime, only 16 percent of the average factory workers
income was subjected to the federal income tax. The tax bite was a mere 4 percent of
income. There wasnt even a payroll deduction until 1943, during wartime.
Directed mainly at the big money, the income tax supplied as much as 59
percent of the federal budget. A top rate of 90 percent whacked the income of the
super-rich. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected with labor support, said no
American should have an income of more than $25,000 after taxes about $250,000 in
But the class struggle over taxes continued. In the White House, the goal
of fairness and social equality died with Roosevelt. The corporate elite came back in full
control. Unions came under attack. (UE, in particular, was targeted for extinction.)
Loopholes allowed the wealthy to weasel out of paying the high rates
required. Workers, meanwhile, became stuck paying more taxes as the exemptions failed to
keep pace with their rising income. In 1964 the UE NEWS complained that the
exemptions covered only 54 percent of workers income, instead of the 16 percent 20
years earlier. The federal tax bite took 10 percent of workers income, instead of
the 4 percent in 1944.
UE welcomed the tax cuts enacted in February 1964 which gave workers a
couple of bucks of extra income but condemned the much bigger gains going to millionaires.
The unions position, repeated annually throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
zero taxes on incomes below a level needed for a moderate standard of living.
Over the years the burden on working people became ever heavier as
loopholes became more outrageous and the tax rate on corporate income declined. In 1960
corporations paid 24.2 percent of all federal taxes. By 1976, after demanding additional
deductions, credits and other loopholes, corporations paid only 15.5 percent of all taxes.
While in 1960 34.5 percent of all taxes collected by the federal
government were withheld from workers paychecks, just 16 years later that figure had
risen to 41 percent. The Vietnam War made the problem worse "it isnt
Welfare that is soaking up the taxes, its Warfare," UE pointed out in 1971.
During World War II, personal
income exemptions covered all but 16 percent of the average factory workers income.
Today, twice as much of the average workers income is subject to the income tax. The
wealthy and corporations have succeeded in shifting much of the tax burden to working
people. To achieve fair taxation, UE calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and
corporations and lower taxes on working-class Americans. (The table is based on the
average factory wage and a family of four with standard deductions.)
Illustration based on a graphic by Fred Wright
in the UE NEWS, February 10, 1964.
Meanwhile, the expansion of state and local taxes made the burden on
working people nearly unbearable. State taxes are even friendlier to the wealthy than
federal taxes. For the most part, these are regressive sales and property taxes
meaning, the more money a person has, the lower the tax burden. A 7 percent sales
tax on a car takes a bigger bite out of a working persons income than that of a rich
person. When the Reagan and Bush Administrations in the 1980s dismantled
federal programs and placed greater responsibilities on the states, working people got
socked again, with a heavier tax burden.
At Reagans request, Congress in 1983 slashed the top income tax rate
from 70 percent to 50 percent. The 1986 tax reform act closed loopholes but dropped the
top marginal rate to 28 percent. Under Bush and Clinton, the top rate edged back up
to 31 percent in 1991 and to 36 percent in 1993. Not only was the top rate now far below
the 91 percent when Kennedy took office 30 years earlier, it was still below the
top rates levied on the rich in many other industrialized countries.
Written by lawyers and millionaires for the benefit of those who could
afford the best lawyers and accountants, tax law became terribly complicated.
Working people became so frustrated with the tax system that some
responded favorably to calls by multi-millionaires to eliminate the income tax. Proposed
as a replacement to the income tax were a national sales tax and a flat tax, which would
bear down even harder on working people and leave untouched great piles of money owned by
the corporate elite.
MONEY TO MONEY
The super-rich were just being greedy, of course. "From 1977 to 1994,
the average after-tax income of the wealthiest one percent of Americans rose 72 percent,
after adjustment for inflation, and the average income of the nations top 20 percent
of families rose 25 percent," reported the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"But the average after-tax income of the poorest fifth of the population dropped
16 percent during this period."
In 1994 the wealthiest one percent of Americans received as much after-tax
income as the bottom 35 percent combined, and the top 20 percent had nearly as much income
as the bottom 80 percent. The unfairness of the tax system, like the decline of union
strength, contributed to the growing gap between rich and poor.
The 1997 Clinton-Republican tax package did little to alter that state of
affairs. "Do not be fooled by the provision of health insurance to poor children, or
the handful of beneficial or palatable changes in the tax bill," editorialized Multinational
Monitor. "The Clinton Administrations support of this tax bill is the most
recent shameful act of an administration that has compiled a long record of favoring the
rich at the expense of the poor."
The richest one percent gained almost one third of the total value of tax
cuts in the 1997 bill; the top five percent took almost half the tax cuts, while the
richest 20 percent got more than 75 percent.
"Basically, just about anything that has been discussed thats
positive for investors, and thereby positive for Wall Street, has happened," a Smith
Barney executive told the press in commenting on the 1997 tax package.
And what was in it for the rest of us?
Most taxpayers filing their returns last April had little reason to cheer
the Clinton-Gingrich tax package, wrote Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax
Justice. "Only one in 17 taxpayers making less than $59,000 will see a tax
reduction... For the 80 percent of taxpayers who fall into that income group, the average
tax cut will be $6. Even for the 15 percent of tax filers making $59,000 to $112,000, the
average tax cut is only $81." Two-thirds of the "taxpayer relief" promised
by the bill went to best-off 1 percent of taxpayers with incomes of more than $666,000, he
Despite its many flaws, the tax system is still somewhat progressive. In
1994, the richest 1 percent paid 33.2 percent of their income in all kinds of federal
taxes, a higher cumulative rate than the next four percent, and so on. Well-off Americans
paid $18 billion more income tax in 1995 than they did in 1993, mostly because they were
richer. Their total incomes rose by a mind-boggling $57 billion over those two years.
The problem is that a number of loopholes and dodges allow the very
wealthy to shield their incomes from taxes. Working people have little protection;
instead, Congress has closed practically all deductions allowed to workers.
As a result of the deductions and credits available to the wealthy, 998
top earners with adjusted gross income totaling $600 million paid no income taxes at all
in 1995. Ninety-seven percent of the super-rich paid less than the top rate of 35 percent
rate, 81 percent paid less than 30 percent, 43 percent paid less than a 25 percent rate.
Much of the tax "reforms" bandied about in Washington
like the flat tax and value added tax proposals would replace an unfair tax system
with a worse plan that would benefit the wealthy at the expense of working people.
What can be done?
Corporations have succeeded in
shifting their share of the tax burden to working people. In 1940, corporate income taxes
alone accounted for more than 41 percent of all federal tax collections. Over the last 50
years the corporate contribution has declined steadily. Cuts in the corporate tax rate,
combined with wasteful military spending in the 1980s, caused the federal deficit to
balloon. And corporations make an even smaller contribution to state coffers: in 1997,
taxes on corporations represented just 6.9 percent of state tax collections.
Source: UE Research Department, Historical
Statistics of the United States (1975), Statistical Abstract of the United States
Delegates to UEs National convention last year demanded that
"Congress and state legislators reform the tax system by increasing taxes on the
wealthy and corporations and reducing taxes on working-class Americans." The
convention also demanded that "Congress and state legislators end corporate welfare
and other corporate tax breaks, especially tax breaks that help companies close plants or
(The Labor Party calls for higher income tax rates for the rich and the
elimination of all tax loopholes used by the rich and a 100 percent tax on that portion of
executive salaries exceeding 20 times the average workers pay in that corporation.)
How should taxes on working people be lowered? For many years UE took the
position that no income taxes should be levied on income needed to sustain a modest but
adequate standard of living, based on U.S. Labor Dept. estimates. The Labor Dept. no
longer makes such estimates.
Heres an idea: No federal income tax on incomes lower than $100,000,
period, with automatic increases of that floor.
Taxes will be fair and simple for the majority of Americans when working
people succeed in placing the tax burden squarely on those with the money.
UE News - 03/99