Fewer Households Paying No Federal Income Tax

gop presidential candidate mitt romney
Charles Dharapak/APFormer Republican presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
By Allison Linn

That "47 percent" quote that helped sink Mitt Romney's presidential hopes? Better make that 43 percent now.

The share of households who aren't paying any federal income tax has fallen, and a new analysis from the Tax Policy Center predicts that it will continue to shrink in years to come.

That's partly because a slew of temporary tax cuts enacted during the Great Recession have started to expire. And it's partly because an improving economy means people's incomes should slowly start to increase, adding to their income tax bill.

By 2024, the tax policy think tank projects that only about one-third of households won't be paying any federal income taxes. The improvements might take a while because the economy has been adding new jobs at a painfully slow pace, and many workers aren't yet seeing much bigger paychecks.
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Romney made "the 47 percent" famous during his 2012 Republican presidential campaign, after he was secretly recorded at a closed-door fundraiser saying that 47 percent of the population is dependent on government, believes the government has a responsibility to care for them "and will vote for this president no matter what."

"These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax," Romney said in the secretly recorded video, which was obtained first by Mother Jones and later by NBC News.

Romney was widely believed to have been referencing an earlier analysis released by the Tax Policy Center, which estimated that 47 percent of households paid no federal income taxes in 2009.

Roberton Williams, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center, notes that households that pay no federal income tax are very likely to still be paying other taxes. Those include payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security, sales taxes and other state and local taxes.

"These people are taxpayers. That's an important point to make, I think," Williams said.

So who makes up the 43 percent?

Williams' analysis found that about 29 percent of all households include people who are working, and subject to payroll taxes, but don't have a federal income tax bill. That could be because of deductions or other tax breaks.

Another approximately 10 percent are elderly, and they likely aren't paying federal income taxes because they don't have much income beyond Social Security. A smaller portion -- about 3 percent -- are making less than $20,000 a year and therefore aren't subject to federal income tax because they are too poor.

That leaves about 1 percent of taxpayers who have other special circumstances, such as they are already paying foreign taxes.

Those who pay no federal income taxes aren't all low wage earners. Thousands of people who have income of more than $200,000 a year have been able to zero out their federal income tax bill, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service.

Williams also noted that many people who are part of the 43 percent may not even know it, since most people don't do their own taxes and those that do can easily get lost in the complexities of our famously dizzying tax code.

"I don't really know whether people are aware of it or not," he said.


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