2005 June 22 Wednesday
Rapidly Growing Portion Of US Population Pays No Income Tax

A new report from The Tax Foundation shows that the portion of the population who are income taxpayers is a shrinking percentage of the total US population.

One of the biggest obstacles facing President Bush’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform is the fact that America has become divided between a growing class of people who pay no income taxes and a shrinking class of people who are bearing the lion’s share of the burden.

Despite the charges of critics that the tax cuts enacted in 2001, 2003 and 2004 favored the “rich,” these cuts actually reduced the tax burden of low- and middle-income taxpayers and shifted the tax burden onto wealthier taxpayers. Tax Foundation economists estimate that for tax year 2004, a record 42.5 million Americans who filed a tax return (one-third of the 131 million returns filed last year) had no tax liability after they took advantage of their credits and deductions. Millions more paid next to nothing.

As Figure 1 and Table 1 show, the number of Americans who paid no income taxes because of the preferences in the tax code has varied greatly since 1950. While the number of these “non-payers” has averaged about 22 percent of all filers over the past five decades, it has spiked to record levels in recent years and the trend line does not appear to be slowing.

In addition to these non-payers, roughly 15 million individuals and families earned some income last year but not enough to be required to file a tax return. When these non-filers are added to the non-payers, they add up to 57.5 million income-earning people who will be paying no income taxes.

Even 57.5 million is not the actual number of people because one tax return often represents several people. When all of the dependents of these income-producing people are counted, roughly 120 million Americans – 40 percent of the U.S. population – are outside of the federal income tax system.

A lot of people are eligible for credits that effectively give them negative tax rates. So they get a "refund" check far greater than any tax paid.

In 1997, Congress enacted a new $500 per-child tax credit and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-income workers. The 2003 tax cuts increased the value of the child credit to $1,000. These two tax credits – especially the child credit – have had a powerful effect on reducing, and many cases eliminating, the income tax liability for millions of Americans.

These two credits are unique in that a taxpayer can receive the full value of the credit even if they have no tax liability. To see how this works, consider, for example, a family that has three children (and thus should receive $3,000 in tax credits), but only has a tax liability of $1,505. Under the rules of most tax credits, this family would only be allowed $1,505 in tax relief – an amount equal to their tax liability. But a “refundable” tax credit gives this family the full amount they are eligible for -- $1,505 toward their tax liability, and the remaining $1,495 in the form of a refund check. (See Table 2.)

The percentage of non-payers who are white is exaggerated by the inclusion of Hispanics with whites. If I understand this data correctly the 79% of the total non-payers who are listed as white include the 15% who are Hispanic. So really only 64% of the non-payers are white and that is a much lower percentage than they are of the population as a whole.

The racial or ethnic composition of the 42.5 million non-payers roughly mirrors the demographics of American tax filers as a whole. For example, white Americans are 83 percent of total taxpayers, and the percentage of zero-tax filers who are white is 79 percent. African Americans are roughly 13 percent of total taxpayers and 16 percent of zero-tax filers. Asian Americans comprise 3.6 percent of total taxpayers and 3.2 percent of zero-tax filers.

That said, the percentage of non-payers within each ethnic or racial group does vary: 28.6 percent of Asian Americans tax filers get back every dollar withheld, 31.1 percent of white American tax filers will owe nothing, and 41.7 percent of African Americans will file a tax return with no liability.

Absent from these categories are Hispanic Americans. Within Census data, race and ethnic Hispanic origin are not comparable concepts because a Hispanic individual can be of any race. As a result, Hispanics Americans must be considered separately from racial characteristics. Hispanics make up 15 percent of the 42.5 million individuals or households that paid no income taxes in 2004. In contrast, they made up roughly 10 percent of all 131 million taxable American households.

Are they saying that 131 million taxpaying households or 131 million households that in theory could pay taxes? 6.375 million Hispanic households pay no income taxes. What percentage are they of the total number of Hispanic households? Are there 13.1 million total or 13.1 million plus 6.375 million?

These figures understate the size of the problem. Even many of those who pay some taxes pay far less than they cost the government and do not pay enough to fund basic government functions like basic research and defense. Check out a table on the Recipient Class to get an idea of how much money is shifted from higher income earning groups to lower income groups.

The fraction of the US population that does not pay income tax is growing rapidly.

In 2004, a record 42.5 million tax returns – one-third of all returns filed – had no income tax liability because of the available credits and deductions in the tax code. This is a 42 percent increase in the number of zero-tax filers in just four years. In addition to these zero-tax filers are the 15 million individuals or households who do not earn enough to file a tax return. Overall, nearly 58 million taxable households are outside of the income tax system.

A shrinking portion of the population supports the rest of the population. A combination of immigration and aging strongly contribute to this trend. We should stop the flow of low-skilled immigrants both legal and illegal and we should deport all the illegal aliens along with legal aliens who have low skills and low incomes. Also, we should raise the retirement age.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 June 22 05:10 PM  Economics Demographic

Invisible Scientist said at June 22, 2005 6:22 PM:

First of all, at least we should add some high quality immigrants by immediately modifying the annual green card lottery which gives 50,000 green cards every year, to random foreigners. The lottery registration should have a minimum IQ requirement of 125 and a Master's degree with a minimum GPA comparable to the 3.75 in the United States. Also, the lottery
should be such that higher priority should be given for a combination of higher intelligence test results, higher PhD level accomplishments and higher prior success prior to entering the United states, younger age, etc.

Additionally, separately from the modified green card lottery mentioned above, also give automatic US citizenship to all children under 15 who happen to have an IQ at least 155.

Separately, give financial incentives for intelligent couples to have more children, such as special tax credits for each child they have for the rest of their lives, as long as the couple have an IQ at least 139.

Also give financial incentives to non-tax paying or below average intelligence people to have NO children at all. Pay them not to have children, or a maximum of one child per couple, and no money at all if they have the child without getting married.

Bob Badour said at June 22, 2005 7:17 PM:

Ironically, that last suggestion won't fly. No matter how you slice it, the thing comes out sexist. If it applies to men and to women equally, men who have illegitimate children will claim it. If it applies to women only, it is sexist on its face.

PacRim Jim said at June 22, 2005 9:39 PM:

Every last one will vote Democrat.

JRM said at June 22, 2005 9:55 PM:

Invisible Scientist,
The IQ thresholds you cite: 125,155, and 139, seem arbitrary. Why those specific numbers?

If you could keep net tax revenue the constant, would you raise sales taxes and lower personal income taxes? That would force even the lowest earners to pay taxes.

Mark said at June 22, 2005 10:16 PM:

JRM, to be fair any hard line which deals with a gradient scale would be arbitrary, e.g. the age of adulthood, sexual consent, retirement, the weight one is classsified obese etc., however the reason for having a cut-off number is not arbitrary. Whether the number is 125 or 135, the point is dullards wouldn't be allowed to immigrate to the US, in fact only the very bright. This ensures the inflow of people improves the quality of life, instead of reducing it, as is currently the case.

Randall Parker said at June 22, 2005 10:21 PM:


I'm reluctant to support a national sales tax without total abolition of the income tax. Politicians over time would tend to increase each tax to try to get to higher revenue levels than they ever could reach with just one of the taxes.

However, I'd certainly prefer a sales tax as a way to avoid letting some people pay no taxes. At the same time, we could accomplish that by getting rid of the tax credits and the 0 tax rate at the bottom. But I don't expect that to happen just like I do not expect a national VAT.

Randall Parker said at June 22, 2005 10:25 PM:


I agree with you. We ought to set at least a 120 IQ minimum because that is the minimum IQ needed to be an engineer, doctor, or other highly skilled professional. I'd tend to want to set the floor even higher than 120 in order to avoid regression to the mean would result in children who'd be lower than 120.

The other neat thing about setting a high IQ threshold is that we can get very few immigrants, still get all the benefits of immigration, and yet avoid crowding ourselves with tens of millions more people.

John S Bolton said at June 23, 2005 12:37 AM:

That sort of policy would be helpful, but it needs the testing to be done in English, for verbal IQ. If each one must qualify separately, you would get mostly young single men, who would assimilate even more rapidly then the language requirement would suggest, since they would form families by marrying here. In this way, the existing population gets to vet the immigrants for reproductive compatibility.

raj said at June 23, 2005 1:59 AM:

The fundamental flaw of democracy is that it is only as functional as the general populace. If the general populace is competitive and civic minded, then the democracy will be strong. If the populace is not, then the democracy will be weak. The strength of America for years came because of our freedoms and from having a market dominant majority. With the numerical decline of WASPs and the relative increases in traditionally less competitive groups, there will surely be more turbulent times ahead for America, unless an x factor like behavioral genomics comes to fruition before then.

I mention this because I feel there is little that stop this process. Why on earth would would powerful organizations like La Raza or the Democratic National Party alter our immigration laws when they are so decidedly benefitting them? Both of these organizations know that if we had such a threshold for IQ, fewer of the current immigrants and future Democrat Party voters would likely be let in. What possible incentive could anyone who benefits from said laws have in changing them? I can just see:
1) Democrat Senators staging filibusters to prevent votes on immigration legislation. Even Frist has said he is not going to try to change the right to filibuster on laws.
2) The liberal media, including the NYT and CBS News, running smear campaigns on supporters of this legislation as racist or not compassionate.
3) Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and the rest of the Hollywood media staging massive public rallies to bring the public's attention to the 'plight' of the immigrant 'victims.'
4) Feature print and TV stories showcasing 'noble', law- abiding and hard- working immigrant families who came here illegally from corrupt native countries to access the American dream.

So on and so on...

One thing we can't underestimate is the compassion of the WASP majority. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This has led to affirmative action, our current immigration policy, our welfare state, our tort laws and so on... All we have on our side is FOX news and a number of dry facts, like Borjas's studies on the net economic effects of immigration, massive tomes on IQ studies, or FBI crime statistics. Even where I live (Los Angeles) we have a crumbling health care system that is overburdened by illegal immigrants's needs. Not one significant politician in CA from Arnold on down to the L.A. city council is strongly pushing for any substantive measure to ameliorate the illegal immigration process- namely a wall between us and Mexico. The media and poiliticians are successfully diverting blame to other factors so that it rarely goes to illegal immigrants.

For those of you who think Arnold would have done differently, note that he's backtracked considerably from his initial support of the minutemen. Nobody wants to be seen as a racist. Nobody wants to be seen as not compassionate. I've lost a lot of respect for even John McCain. I wouldn't vote for him if he ran for anything anymore. On a host of issues, he's just like all the others and in some cases, worse.

These ideas are great but not very practical for the real world. Instead of concentrating on a broken democracy to find the public policy solution, I would suggest the answer lay in behavioral genomics and voluntary eugenics. I trust science a lot more than I trust politicians of either party at this point.

John S Bolton said at June 23, 2005 2:24 AM:

If a committed minority can get their way, than a determined majority can override them, all the way over to the other exremes.

John S Bolton said at June 23, 2005 4:37 AM:

I like the idea of being fair to the prospective immigrant, as with a merit system; but justice to the net taxpayer is enormously more important. The government has an unquestionable duty to defend the citizen and the net taxpayer, but no responsibility whatever to the foreigner seeking to colonize. One has only to consider how diammetrically opposed such policies as those suggested above are to the actual immigration policies, to realize that these last are outrageously antimerit. Wouldn't it be correct also to say that such policies are motivated by malicious hatred of the net taxpayer of this country? Increasing the low income population, who're almost never net taxpayers, is sure to do huge damage in aggregate. Hence the enthusiasm of those who want to destroy human success, for antimerit immigration; don't they love such and such diversity?

Chen Ni said at June 23, 2005 7:07 AM:

Hey y'all, I was wondering if anyone had a brief bio of Randall Parker. His website is very interesting and educational, and I would like to use it as evidence in debate (the high school activity), so any list of qualfications, college degrees, and occupations would be greatly appreciated.

Marvin said at June 23, 2005 7:32 AM:

I agree that it is far more important to be fair to the taxpayer citizen than to be "fair" to the immigrant. Admission to this country should be based upon ability to contribute to the society. Intelligence testing, language competence, useful knowledge and skills testing all should be done. Muslims, due to low average intelligence, would already have a large strike against them. Any ties to islamic fanaticism would disqualify the individual and trigger automatic deportation.

Dan said at June 23, 2005 7:51 AM:

A few comments. First the rising proportion of people who dont pay income tax, is a reflection of the growing concentration of wealth. This trend will continue and accelerate. Note I did not say ALL this % of nonpayers is caused by this but it is a contributing factor which will get larger over time.
On immigration I believe Canada has a point system for potential immigrants that weights heavily toward education and wealth I also seem to rember Mew Zealand has one also. I am not sure how upto date this information is, butI definitely think it is the way to go.I really dont care much one way or another about language Educational acheivement with a wealth componet should produce the desired results. Concerning immigration politics, change wont happen until the unions and working classs particularlly afro-americams can see the problem. This is not a subject that can be solved by only one party. It will need a biparisan solution.

Dave Schuler said at June 23, 2005 9:23 AM:

A couple of small points. Although neither pay taxes combining non-filers with non-payers may drive one to some incorrect conclusions. The wealthier the taxpayer the more likely that he or she will hire tax attorneys and accountants to ensure that he or she pays the least possible tax. Is the question how many filing non-payers there are or how much income is not subject to tax? From the standpoint of tax revenues surely the latter. And as Dan points out, the concentration of wealth itself ensures fewer actual payers.

Second, the idea that we can correct whatever immigration issues we have in this country by placing more regulations on legal immigrants is flawed. Illegal immigration is, after all, an alternative to legal immigration. Another factor being ignored is what's called “family re-unification”. For every highly qualified professional there's a spouse, children, in-laws, etc. Will all be equally qualified? Doubtful.

Randall Parker said at June 23, 2005 9:35 AM:


A surprisingly large and rapidly rising portion of the population pays the alternative minimum tax (I'm too busy researching new posts to look for AMT payment trends but have read articles about AMT in the past). The portion of total income taxes paid by the top 10% in income is, if memory serves, way more than 50% of total tax revenue.

Also, the number of non-filers is far too large for a significant fraction of them to be wealthy. Ditto for those who file who pay no tax. We are talking tens of millions of people.

I certainly advocate both an end to illegal immigration and much higher standards on who can get it. I don't think anyone here who is arguing for higher standards on legal immigrants is also saying that we don't have to stop the illegal influx.

raj said at June 23, 2005 11:36 AM:

A great book that is relevant for this topic is Amy Chua's World on Fire. I'm in the middle of it. If anyone thinks the concentration of wealth in the hands of a priviledged few is bad in America, look at what's going on in Latin America, SE Asia, and Russia. Understand the terms market dominant majority and market dominant minority. America was so great for so long due to having the quite rare market dominant majority at work.

Immigration and declining birth rates among Whites are likely going to make us more like the stratified Latin American model, which should cause everyone here to be scared. Support stem cell research if you care about America's future.

Invisible Scientist said at June 23, 2005 12:05 PM:

Science is making it even more possible for the higher IQ classes to surpass the lower IQ classes. But note that IQ is a relative term, in the sense that the IQ test scores get renormalized every decade, depending on the changes. If you somehow use selective breeding to increase the average IQ of the society, then the relative higher IQ classes will continue to surpass the lower IQ classes in the future. As a result, as long as the taxes are low, the upper IQ class will accumulate wealth and power faster than the lower classes. In 1929, the top 1 % richest families, owned over 44 % of the financial wealth in the United States, and that percentage declined to 20 % by 1980, but between 1980 and 2000, the
percentage climbed back to close to 50 %. Economic growth was actually responsible for the stratification.

raj said at June 23, 2005 5:40 PM:

Invisible Scientist:
"But note that IQ is a relative term, in the sense that the IQ test scores get renormalized every decade, depending on the changes."

This is not necessarily true anymore. The latest data regarding the Flynn effect suggests that it may no longer be present. A. Beaujean did an article recently about this over at GNXP.

"If you somehow use selective breeding to increase the average IQ of the society, then the relative higher IQ classes will continue to surpass the lower IQ classes in the future."

I'm not convinced of this. If we are able to give everyone a strong genetic contribution to their IQ via GE, that is 40-50% of the total for IQ (possibly higher if you look at the heritability studies which suggests IQ might be 70-80% genetic among adults). Regardless, this is a huge contribution that can help 'equalize' intellect across the spectrum.

The only way I buy your argument is if you are suggesting that:
1) The higher socioeconomic groups would be the first to access this technology and so would be the first to 'improve' the intellect of their progeny. While true, GC of GNXP suggested that the lower socioecnomic groups would simply lobby for government programs to allow them to have access to this tech too. I also cannot see a large middle class passively sitting by while everybody else uses eugenics for their kids. Note, this type of lobbying has already happened to benefit the poor if you look at abortion and, in a broader sense, public health care in America.
2) The environmental component (especially the non- shared component) to IQ would be still stronger among higher socioeconomic groups. I concede that this factor could still be at work. Nobody said this technology would get rid of all possible differences between peoples. It could be argued that some degree of differences might be beneficial to humanity anyway. Regardless, the lower socioeconomic groups's IQ 'gap' would still likely be lower with eugenics than without.

"Economic growth was actually responsible for the stratification."

I won't dispute this. However, Razib (I think) recently did an article on the amount of billionaires in the various regions of the world (L. America, Asia, Africa, America, the EU). The most serious disparity existed between the amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of the fewest in both L. America and Africa. Nobody is suggesting that there won't be stratification with economic growth. But, there is a gross difference between the level of stratification in America and the absurd stratification going on in other parts of the world.

P.S. I apologize for not putting links to the GNXP articles. If you are an avid reader of the site, you'll know what I'm referring to. If I feel less lazy later, I might find them for you.

Randall Parker said at June 23, 2005 6:23 PM:


My take on the IQ gap is that it will persist for quite a long time. Why? Because some of the advantages of the higher IQ people came from stuff that happened during fetal development that can't just be bolted in other brains later. Think about skull size for example. How many people are going to be up for getting their skulls sawed open and then reattached further out to provide room for brain expansion?

Also, think about nerve insulation. If some people have insulating material that allows faster nerve conduction then it will be difficult go to and gradually replace insulating material in other people to speed up their brains. Plus, such a speed-up would likely create imbalances in ratios of speeds in the brain and wrong absolute for the brain to do things like telling the heart how to beat or for deciding when to sleep. So I see potential for cognitive enhancements to cause the brain to become, in a sense, uncalibrated. Recalibration might be a bitch. Weird personality and behavioral changes might result.

Oh, and yes, you were lazy to not provide at least a link to the GNXP Gene Expression site. ;>

raj said at June 23, 2005 7:07 PM:

I don't dispute what you're saying. However, I am mainly referring to eugenics that will affect future progeny. I thought that was apparent in my comments. Specifically, I think GE could be used to affect genomes at the zygotic or even pre- zygotic level (via eggs and sperms). I dunno. This is just a thought. Robert Plomin and others are doing research into identifying specific marker alleles that ultra- high IQ people might carry. Once we get over that bridge, we need to see how to appropriately apply this tech and that is where we'll bring in the developmental biologists to assist us in engineering smarter kids. But, while mankind is waiting for its 'faster, stronger, smarter' replacements, the IQ gap (among other genetic inequities) will be safe.

I suspect that only after we've gotten past this stage of GE for our potential progeny will we be even close to contemplating how to 'recalibrate' ouselves.

Luke Lea said at June 23, 2005 7:32 PM:

Something that no one has mentioned which surprised me when I found out: The most egregious example of people not paying their taxes includes the tiny group at the very top of our society, whom David Cay Johnson calls "the donor class" because they are the ones who bankroll both political parties. By concealing their income in shell corporations, off-shore accounts, and complicated tax shelters, while at the same time using their political influence to effectively prevent the IRS from auditing their returns or otherwise enforcing the tax code, approximately 13,000 of the richest families in America fail to pay, according to Johnson (who is a Pulitzer prize winning financial journalist at the New York Times) roughly $300 billion per year (for details see his book "Perfectly Legal"). That means that honest taxpayers and all taxpayers whose income is in the form of wages and salaries are forced to pay roughly one fourth more than they otherwise would have to, to make up the short-fall. For all you libertarians out there who don't like to pay so much in taxes, if you are serious about reducing them, this is where to go.

Randall Parker said at June 23, 2005 7:56 PM:


I wonder whether the dummies will embrace offspring genetic engineering. Here are the reasons I suspect they will do so more slowly:

1) Dummies are more likely to be suspicious and religious about human nature.

2) Dummies will be less informed about what is possible with offspring genetic engineering.

3) Dummies have more unplanned pregnancies and engage in more impulsive behaviors. They'd have to get it together to get to a doctor and say "Hey, I want to have a baby that is really smart".

4) Dummies who can't even glimpse or imagine the high reaches of math and physics and other complex stuff won't even imagine how much less able they are to understand the world than smarties. Smarties will know what smarts make possible and will seek to make their children smarter still.

5) Dummies will have less money to pay for offspring genetic engineering.

6) Dummies will be intellectually less equipped to examine and make smart choices for offspring genetic modification.

raj said at June 23, 2005 8:04 PM:

That's true. There will be more reluctance among those who are less smart to embrace GE. However, I've never thought the leaders of organizations like La Raza, the NAACP or the Democratic Party were stupid. If it can be shown that there is a serious advantage to potential kids who undergo GE, I think they will push and pull all their members to consider GE for their potential kids. Like any movement, this one will take time. But like any movement, once it gets going, even the lower functioning members will be forced to embrace the tech- if only to keep up with what their friends, neighbors or family are doing for their respective kids.

In essence, I think you've raised some valid concerns over the speed of GE across humanity. However, I think you agree with me that ultimately it will be mankind's destiny.

John S Bolton said at June 23, 2005 10:51 PM:

The high growth of those paying no income tax is another sign of the rapid decline in quality of population. The government has to exempt larger and larger percentages from such liabilities, and has had to put a parallel, fast growing group on a negative income tax. The alternative would be the grossly inefficient one of a snowballing welfare administration. The unpopularity of that alternative approach was shown by the magnitude of Mcgovern's defeat in 1972, one of the chief issues of which was his proposal for a negative income tax, but which was interpreted as a call for an enlarged welfare system with relaxed requirements for eligibility. The disadvantaged minority population has doubled since then, as a percentage of the total. This implicates antimerit immigration policy as the source of the enhanced growth rate of untaxable low income populations. We now have brought in over 10% of the residents of the country; who are foreign born, and whose median personal income is only 16k/year. The Hispanic household income per person is only 12k/year, half that of the majority. We've never had an immigrant population of any significant fraction of the total who remained, or even started off, this far down, comparatively. It bodes ill, in terms of increasing conflict in both directions; from the minorities towards the majority, and vice versa.

D Flinchum said at June 24, 2005 2:14 PM:

One aspect of this issue that should be discussed is this: There are something like 400,000 people in the US receiving SSI who have never paid into the Social Security system. Many of these are the aged parents of legal aliens brought to this country by their children via the family reunification policy. Their children should be supporting them based upon their stated intentions at the time that these people were cleared for immigration. A lot of those who are doing this are Chinese professional and technical workers allowed in by virtue of their "skills". Some of them may even be your "high IQ" aliens but a high IQ doesn't necessarily translate into integrity. Family reunification should be based on what is good for the receiving country, in this case the US. Immigrants who brought their aged parents to this country should support them.

raj said at June 24, 2005 4:51 PM:

"There are something like 400,000 people in the US receiving SSI who have never paid into the Social Security system."

Living in L.A. I can tell you I have personally seen a lot of what you're describing among illegal, elderly Hispanic immigrants. Nicest people you'll meet, BTW.

raj said at June 24, 2005 4:54 PM:

Also, from a purely economic standpoint (ignoring the cultural implications), I would gladly accept the same level of immigration we are currently getting from Mexico if it were from China. The Chinese diaspora has always succeeded economically wherever it is throughout the world.

D Flinchum said at June 24, 2005 6:18 PM:

Illegal Mexican immigrants can't bring their aged parents into the US and put them on SSI. I am totally against what is happening on our southern border and have no interest in any sort of amnesty for these illegal aliens; but I don't support legal immigrants bringing in their sick, old parents, whom they have promised to support, and then dumping them on the US taxpayer. Some of these sick old parents are brought here with the particular intent of going on government assistance. Some who are "reunited" with their families live hundreds of miles away from their families at US taxpayer expense. Some live with their families and pay them rent at US taxpayer expense. Whom in the US does this help? Nobody I can think of.

raj said at June 28, 2005 12:32 PM:

Hmmm, I think you might be right, but I always assumed illegal immigrants could get SSDI, too.

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