In 2002 the inimitably audacious editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal brought to the nation’s attention the existence of a vast and allegedly pernicious class of “lucky duckies” who pay no federal income tax because their incomes are in sub-$40,000 territory and they qualify for one or more of the many credits added to the tax code in recent decades.
Since then, thanks to tax changes proposed and signed into law by President Bush, this impoverished yet fortunate class has only grown–to 45.6 million households, or one-third of all income tax filers, according to the Tax Foundation, a right-leaning think tank with a reputation for getting its numbers right. If the various tax cuts and credits Barack Obama has proposed on the campaign trail are enacted, the group estimates, that figure will rise to 63 million, while John McCain’s tax plans would bring the tally to 62 million. Either way, more than 40% of the population would stand to come out even or ahead on April 15.
What are we to make of this development? Some conservatives say it endangers the underpinnings of American democracy, echoing the 2002 Journal editorial: “Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else. They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government.” This argument is historically obtuse, considering that the federal income tax was initially designed to hit only a tiny minority of high earners and exempt the other 99% (it first became a mass tax during World War II). It’s also misleading, in that lucky duckies still get hit with payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, federal excise taxes, state and local sales taxes and so on.
But the growth in the ranks of those who pay no income tax does raise an important question that both Obama and McCain failed to fully answer during the current campaign: How the heck are we going to finance our government? The question has been looming for a while because of the chronic deficits of the Bush years and the soon-to-escalate demands on Social Security and Medicare. It has gained urgency lately, with Washington committing vast sums to fighting financial panic and with more deficit-financed emergency aid surely on the way. Read more.
One final note: I really wish I had read Shawn Tully’s new Fortune article on the HENRYs (high earners, not rich yet) before writing my column. Because then I could have worked in the HENRYs alongside the lucky ducks.