The Poor Pay a Higher Percentage of Income in Taxes

By: - January 15, 2015 12:00 am

Every state and local tax system, from Alaska to Wyoming, is inherently unfair to the poor, according to a new study by the progressive research organization Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. States without a graduated personal income tax and high sales taxes are the worst, but every state has some inequity, the report said.

As multiple states grapple with ways to raise revenue to stave off budget deficits or pay for underfunded state services, many are considering adding to the very taxes that are hardest on the poor – excise taxes, sales taxes and fuel taxes, in particular.

According to the report, the lower one’s income, the higher the effective state and local tax rate. Combining all state and local income, property, sales and excise taxes that Americans pay, the nationwide average effective state and local tax rates by income group are 10.9 percent for the poorest 20 percent, 9.4 percent for the middle 20 percent and 5.4 percent for the top 1 percent, the report said.

In the 10 states with the most regressive tax structures, the bottom 20 percent pay up to seven times as much of their income in combined taxes as their wealthy counterparts. Washington state is the most regressive, taxing its poorest residents at 16.8 percent while taxing the top 1 percent at only 2.4 percent. Other states with the most regressive systems are Florida, Texas, South Dakota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas and Indiana, the study said.

States that rely more heavily on sales taxes and excise taxes (on things like tobacco and alcohol) have the most regressive tax systems, the report said. Six of the 10 most regressive states get about  half to two-thirds of their tax revenue from sales and excise taxes, compared to a national average of about  one-third.

Five of the most regressive tax states do not levy a broad-based personal income tax at all. That affects the rate because most personal income tax systems are progressive where wealthier individuals pay taxes at a higher rate. And four of the most regressive tax states have a personal income tax structure that is flat or virtually flat.

“In recent years, multiple studies have revealed the growing chasm between the wealthy and everyone else,” said Matt Gardner, executive director of ITEP. “State policymakers … should thoroughly explore and enact tax reform policies that will make their tax systems fairer.”

The study listed the states that have the least regressive tax structures, including California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon and Vermont. These states have more graduated personal income taxes, rely less on sales taxes for revenue or have generous, refundable Earned Income Tax Credits.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.