View From The Top

July 21, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Several Democratic Presidential contenders have painted a target on the top 1%, claiming that they have not paid their fair share of taxes. After the 1986 Tax Reform Act, those in the top 1% paid 26% of their income in taxes. Thirty years later and they paid the same percentage, even though their incomes had grown 50% in real dollars, according to an analysis of IRS data from 2016 returns (Note #1).

Other high-income brackets have experienced modest income gains and small increases in their average tax rates. In 1987, the top 10% of incomes paid 20%. In 2016, they paid 21%.

The average tax rates of the top 25% of incomes has increased from 16.5% to 18.5% in thirty years. As a group, the effective tax rate of the top half of incomes has increased from 14.6% of income in 1987 to 15.6% in 2016. While the top half has gone up a percent or two in the past three decades, the bottom half of incomes have paid a decreasing share of their income – falling from 5% to 3.7%.

The lesson? Changes in tax rates occur very slowly. A candidate who promises big changes quickly is facing formidable odds.

How much income does it take to get into the top half of incomes? Only $40K (Note #2). I was surprised how low the amount was and it hasn’t changed much in the past thirty years. In 1987, the income threshold to be in the top half of incomes was $17,768 – $38,500 in inflation adjusted dollars.

Want to be part of the upper class? All it took in 2016 was $81K, 9% more than it did in 1987, to be a part of the top 25%. How many workers making modestly good incomes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City or Boston feel like they are upper class? After tax income is about $56K and rent in a middle-class neighborhood of L.A. can be 45% of that disposable income. That’s two paychecks toward rent. One paycheck for bills. One paycheck for food and miscellaneous. Ooops, just ran out of paychecks, didn’t you? Welcome to the upper class.

The threshold to get into the top 1% has increased a lot – from $302K to $480K in real dollars – a jump of more than 50%. Those are the people who are still paying the same percentage of their income in taxes. Their share of the total income pie has risen from 12% to 20% in thirty years (Note #3).

In the past thirty years, incomes have stretched upward by 50% for those at the tippy top. As a group their share of income taxes paid has kept pace with income growth, increasing from 24% to 37% of total personal income taxes collected (Note #4). The top 1% can say, “Yes, we are doing better, and we are paying proportionately more.” Can one of the Presidential contenders convince the Congress to get more out of that top 1%?



  1. At the top of the analysis is a link to the Tax Foundation’s summary tables. Table 8 of that summary shows effective tax rates of the various income brackets. Here’s a link to the summary tables themselves.
  2. Table 7 from the summary tables.
  3. Table 5.
  4. Table 6.

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