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What 'Percent' Are You? The Numbers Behind the Tax Divide Debate

what percent are youUpdate: An earlier version of this article claimed that the entry level for the top 1% of households was $1.1 million. While the actual number is a matter of dispute, the Tax Policy Center places it at $532,613.

Political positions were, for a time, a matter of color: Republican were red, Democrats were blue, and nonpartisans and centrists -- when they could be found -- might claim purple. But since the Great Recession, percentages, not pigments, are becoming America's great dividers. With conservatives and liberals alike defining themselves and others as the 99%, the 1%, the 53%, the 47%, and various other percentages, it's time to ask just what these numbers mean -- and where the average American family fits in.

When it comes to dividing up our class structure, the middle is a good place to start -- namely, the 60% of households wedged between the poorest 20% and the richest 20%. These families make between $20,001 and $100,065 a year, and were the group hardest hit by the recession: In 2008, their average income fell by 3.6%, the biggest single-year drop in history. At the same time, they were also devastated by rising unemployment, mass foreclosures, soaring tuitions and frozen wages. By comparison, households below the 20% line often qualify for social welfare programs, were far less likely to own real estate, and were less affected by massive layoffs. In other words, they had less to lose, and ended up losing less.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of those above the 80% line were shielded from the harsher effects of economic downturns. And over the last 30 years, the top 20% have done quite well: Their share of all wages paid in the U.S. has gone from 50% to 60%. Everyone else has lost ground.

The 99% vs. the 1%

Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement and their allies don't think this is the best way of looking at America's households: The big dividing line in their view is the 99th percentile. In this country, they assert, there are the top 1% of households, and everyone else.

There's something to be said for Occupy Wall Street's math. As President Obama discovered when he suggested lowering the qualification line for the top tax rate to $250,000, where we place the dividing line between "the rich" and "everyone else" is highly controversial. But moving the wealth line from $100,065 to $532,613 -- where the Tax Policy Center places the boundary for the top 1% -- avoids the argument about who exactly is middle class. No matter where your political sympathies lie, it's hard to call households that bring home half a million dollars middle class.

And the top 1% have done exceptionally well over the last 30 years: They receive 17% of all wages paid in the U.S -- more than twice the percentage they received 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the bottom 80% of households lost 9% of their income share in the same period, and now receive about 47% of all wages paid. Put simply, the richest 1% gained all the wages the rest of the country lost.

The 53% vs. the 47%

The dividing line between the 99% and the 1% is stark, but some argue there's a better one: The boundary between those who pay income taxes and those who don't. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, 53% of households pay federal income tax; the rest either break even or get back more in refunds than they pay.

In fact, the second-to-lowest 20% of the country -- households making between $20,001 and $38,043 -- get back about 0.4% more income tax than they pay; for families who make less than $20,000, it's about 6.8%.

Some conservatives -- notably on the Tumblr blog We are the 53% -- have taken these numbers to heart, arguing that this means the bottom 47% is getting a free ride. But the 53%/47% division is a bit misleading.

To begin with, almost all households pay state taxes, Medicare tax, Social Security tax, excise taxes, sales taxes, and a raft of other government fees. When this broader, and more accurate, assessment of taxation is used, the 47% doesn't look to be getting off so easy: The second poorest quintile -- the ones that got 0.4% of their income tax back -- still paid more 10% of their incomes in various federal taxes.

In fact, when everything is factored in, 86% of the country pays more than it gets back in federal taxes. As for the rest, it's not the split you might expect: More than half (8% of Americans) are senior citizens receiving Social Security.

And that last 6% -- the ones who really pay nothing to the federal government? They are unemployed, disabled, in school, or making very low incomes. But even this small group pays state and local taxes, sales taxes, and other government fees.

Where the Poor Pay More

When it comes to percentage of income, the line is even clearer: For some taxes, the bottom 20% of the Americans pay more than the top 20%. For example, a household on the bottom pays almost 54% more of its income into Social Security than a household on the top. The same goes for excise taxes -- fees attached to certain commodities like gasoline and alcohol: As a percentage of income, the poorest 20% pays more than four times as much as the richest 20%.

So where is the ultimate dividing line? The answer might have less to do with money than with the way we perceive it: In a recent poll, The Hill found that 66% of likely voters believe that the middle class is shrinking, and 55% believe that income inequality has become a big problem for the country. Surprisingly, worries about income inequality were higher among those who are doing better: 65% of respondents in the top 20% felt that income inequality was a big or somewhat big problem.

In other words, when it comes to the economy, worrying about the future may be the one thing that cuts across all class lines.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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How about no welfare food stamps ect if you don't finish HS. If you don't care about yourself we don't.

December 05 2011 at 1:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

jpsnyder46 So True

December 05 2011 at 1:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Funny how social security is morphing into a welfare program. We used to pay social security insurance premiums, now they are calling it payroll tax. Same for Medicare "Insurance" it seems that the Dems like to have giveaways rather than fulfill the promises made to people who paid their social security insurance premiums for the last 50 years.

November 25 2011 at 12:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jpsnyder46's comment

Dems would rather take from the haves and give to the lazy and illegals. Disgraceful.

November 25 2011 at 10:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

why is that funny. It was designed to be a social welfare program. The only distinction is that it was designed for the middle class.

December 01 2011 at 2:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Annnnnnd the big Three card Monte game continues. Distract people from the real issue which is concentration of asset ownership by continually talking about income. The focus should not be on income, it should be on assets. The rich are not rich because they collect big paychecks. They are rich because they own stuff that pays them for owning it called ASSETS .

What are Assets? Stocks, bonds, commercial real estate, patents, copyrights and closely held family businesses. If you want to show the real disparity in wealth in America do a chart showing what percent of the ASSETS the 1% hold relative to the rest of the population. That's the real eye opener.

November 22 2011 at 12:52 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Joe Putman

His name is Willie Nelson, not Willy Nelson.

November 22 2011 at 12:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


November 21 2011 at 12:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A flat tax is the only way to go. I don't care if it is 999 or 20/10 or whatever. Everyone should pay taxes if they live in this Country. I don't care where you make it, how you make it or where you keep it. If you live here you pay a flat tax to the Governement. There should not be a tax code that requires lawyers to understand it and there should be NO exemptions for any reason. The current tax laws are set the way they are so you can not understand them and do not know how bad they are screwing you, unless you pay some high priced lawyer to tell you. Ever wonder why so many people in elected positions are lawyers? They want to make it complicated to keep you in the dark and so that they and thier little buddies can suck the life out of you.

November 21 2011 at 11:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


November 21 2011 at 11:27 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Unfortunately this article doesn't add up the total tax percentage paid in America with all taxes and fees combined Americans now pay almost 60% of their total income to the government. The sad part of this is our government spend 80% more than they took in. Where does it stop? I think they want it all!

November 21 2011 at 11:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

it dont matter what percentage I am.....i am still an American and until we can take care of our own I am discusted.

November 21 2011 at 10:58 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply