Federal, state and local income taxes consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the last half-century. The overall tax burden hit bottom in December at 8.8.% of income before rising slightly in the first three months of 2010.
"The idea that taxes are high right now is pretty much nuts," says Michael Ettlinger, head of economic policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. The real problem is spending,counters Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks, which organizes Tea Party groups. "The money we borrow is going to be paid back through taxation in the future," he says.
Individual tax rates vary widely based on how much a taxpayer earns, where the person lives and other factors. On average, though, the tax rate paid by all Americans — rich and poor, combined — has fallen 26% since the recession began in 2007. That means a $3,400 annual tax savings for a household paying the average national rate and earning the average national household income of $102,000.
This tax drop has boosted consumer spending and the economy, which grew at a 3.2% annual rate in the first quarter. It also has contributed to the federal debt growing to $8.4 trillion.
Taxes paid have fallen much faster than income in this recession. Personal income fell 2% last year. Taxes paid dropped 23%. The BEA classifies Social Security taxes as insurance payments and excludes them from the tax calculation.
This is a debate the country needs to have in the worst way: the overall tax burden. Yet every time we try, we're told tax increases are simply off the table. Unfortunately, there is only one way to balance the budget right now: cutting spending and raising taxes at the same time.