Visualizing Unequal State Tax Burdens Across America
What percentage of your income goes into Uncle Sam’s pocket?
Your answer will vary depending on how much you earn. Data shows that low and middle-income families pay a much greater share of their income towards state and local taxes than wealthy families.
Today’s visualization uses data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) to map the effective tax rates—or taxes paid as a share of family income—across income groups at the state and local level.
Crunching the Numbers
The data reflects the effect of tax changes enacted through September 10, 2018, using 2015 income levels (the latest year for available, detailed income data). Both single and married tax filers are included, while elderly taxpayers, dependent filers, and those with negative incomes are excluded.
The report includes the state and local taxes for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Taxes are broken into 3 broad groups:
- Consumption taxes – general sales taxes and specialized excise taxes
- Property taxes – including taxes on homes, businesses, and motor vehicles
- Income taxes – paid by individuals and businesses
Federal taxes are not considered.
Editor’s note: It’s worth noting that federal personal income tax has progressive rates, with the lowest earning bracket at 10% and the highest earning bracket at 37% in 2019. At a national level, property taxes are not charged and there is a very low reliance on excise taxes—both of which tend to be regressive as outlined below.
The report includes both taxable and tax-exempt income such as worker’s compensation benefits. It also includes estimates for the amount of unreported income.
Which States Have the Most Unequal Tax Burdens?
Across the U.S., there is a wide disparity in how taxes affect different income groups. Here’s how it all breaks down, ranked in order of tax system inequality*:
Total State and Local Taxes As a Share of Income
By State and Income Group
|RANK||STATE||LOWEST 20%||MIDDLE 60%||TOP 1%|
|50||District of Columbia||6.3%||9.8%||9.5%|
* The ITEP Tax Inequality Index measures the effects of each state’s tax structure on income inequality. In states that rank high for inequality, incomes are less equal after state and local taxes are applied than before. On the flip side, states with the most equality are those where incomes are at least somewhat more equal after state and local taxes are levied than before.
Washington has the most unequal tax burdens. Proportional to their income, Washington taxpayers in the bottom 20% pay almost 6x more than those in the top 1%.
At the other end of the scale, California has the most equal tax system. As a share of their income, the state’s poorest families pay only 0.84x what the wealthiest families pay.
Overall, however, the vast majority of tax systems are regressive.
On average, the lowest 20% of income earners pay 1.54x more of their income in taxes compared to the top 1%.
The Main Causes
Two main factors drive a tax system’s (lack of) equality: how the state designs each tax, and the state’s reliance on different tax sources.
To better explain how this works, let’s take a closer look at each type of tax.
Sales & Excise Taxes
These taxes apply only to spent income, and exempt saved income. Since families with a higher household income are able to save a much larger percentage of their income, and the poorest families can barely save at all, the tax is regressive by nature.
The particular types of items that are taxed affect fairness as well. Quite a few states include food in their sales tax base, and low-income families spend the majority of their income on groceries and other necessities.
Not only that, excise taxes are levied on a small subset of goods that typically have a practical per-person maximum. For example, one person can only use so much fuel. As a wealthy family’s income increases, they generally do not continue to increase their spending on these goods.
States rely on these taxes more than any other tax source, which only exacerbates the problem.
For the average household, the home makes up the majority of their total wealth—meaning most of their wealth is taxed. However, the wealth composition of richer families skews much more heavily towards stock portfolios, business equity, and other assets, which are exempt from property taxes.
While these types of assets are subject to taxes like capital gains and dividends, the distinction is that these taxes are levied only on earned gains. In contrast, property taxes are owed simply as a result of owning the asset.
What about those who don’t own homes? Landlords generally pass on the cost of property tax to renters in the form of higher rent. Since rent comprises a much higher share of expenses for poorer families, this makes property tax even more inequitable.
State income taxes are typically progressive. This means effective tax rates go up as income goes up. Here’s how the U.S. averages break down:
- Low-income families: 0.04%
- Middle-income families: 2.1%
- Top 1%: 4.6%
However, certain policy choices can turn this on its head. Some states have a flat rate for all income levels, a lack of deductions and credits for low-income taxpayers, or tax loopholes that can be beneficial for wealthier income groups.
Nine states charge no income tax at all, garnering reputations as “low tax” states—but this is true only for high-income families. In order to make up for the lost revenue, states rely more heavily on tax sources that disproportionately affect the lowest earners.
Evidently, states with personal income taxes have more equitable effective tax burdens.
Tackling Systemic Issues
Regressive state tax systems negatively impact the after-tax income of low and middle-income families. This means they have less to spend on daily expenses, or to save for the future.
Not only that, because wealthier families aren’t contributing a proportional share of tax dollars, state revenues grow more slowly.
For states looking to create a more equitable tax system, states with progressive systems offer some guidance:
- Graduated income tax rates
- Additional tax over a high-income threshold (e.g $1 million)
- Limits on tax breaks for upper-income taxpayers
- Targeted low-income tax credits
- Lower reliance on regressive consumption taxes
By implementing such policies, governments may see more tax equality—and more tax dollars for programs and services.
Hat tip to reddit user prikhodkop, whose visualization introduced us to this data.
The Fed’s Balance Sheet: The Other Exponential Curve
Quantitative easing has led to an unprecedented expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, leaving some economists with more questions than answers.
The Fed’s Balance Sheet: The Other Exponential Curve
As the threat of COVID-19 keeps millions of Americans locked down at home, businesses and financial markets are suffering.
For example, a survey of small-business owners found that 51% did not believe they could survive the pandemic for longer than three months. At the same time, the S&P 500 posted its worst first-quarter on record.
In response to this havoc, the U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) is taking unprecedented steps to try and stabilize the economy. This includes a return to quantitative easing (QE), a controversial policy which involves adding more money into the banking system. To help us understand the implications of these actions, today’s chart illustrates the swelling balance sheet of the Fed.
How Does Quantitative Easing Work?
Expansionary monetary policies are used by central banks to foster economic growth by increasing the money supply and lowering interest rates. These mechanisms will, in theory, stimulate business investment as well as consumer spending.
However, in the current low interest-rate environment, the effectiveness of such policies is diminished. When short-term rates are already so close to zero, reducing them further will have little impact. To overcome this dilemma in 2008, central banks began experimenting with the unconventional monetary policy of QE to inject new money into the system by purchasing massive quantities of longer-term assets such as Treasury bonds.
These purchases are intended to increase the money supply while decreasing the supply of the longer-term assets. In theory, this should put upward pressure on these assets’ prices (due to less supply) and decrease their yield (interest rates have an inverse relationship with bond prices).
Navigating Uncharted Waters
QE falls under intense scrutiny due to a lack of empirical evidence so far.
Japan, known for its willingness to try unconventional monetary policies, was the first to try QE. Used to combat deflation in the early 2000s, Japan’s QE program was relatively small in scale, and saw mediocre results.
Fast forward to today, and QE is quickly becoming a cornerstone of the Fed’s policy toolkit. Over a span of just 12 years, QE programs have led to a Fed balance sheet of over $6 trillion, leaving some people with more questions than answers.
This is a big experiment. It’s something that’s never been done before.
Kevin Logan, Chief Economist at HSBC
Critics of QE cite several dangers associated with “printing” trillions of dollars. Increasing the money supply can drive high inflation (though this has yet to be seen), while exceedingly low interest rates can encourage abnormal levels of consumer and business debt.
On the other hand, proponents will maintain that QE1 was successful in mitigating the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. Some studies have also concluded that QE programs have reduced the 10-year yield in the U.S. by roughly 1.2 percentage points, thus serving their intended purpose.
Central banks … have little doubt that QE does operate in many ways like conventional monetary policy.
Joseph E. Gagnon, Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics
Regardless of which side one takes, it’s clear there’s much more to learn about QE, especially in times of economic stress.
The Other Exponential Curve
When conducting QE, the securities the Fed buys make their way onto its balance sheet. Below we’ll look at how the Fed’s balance sheet has grown cumulatively with each iteration of QE:
- QE1: $2.3 Trillion in Assets
The Fed’s first QE program ran from January 2009 to August 2010. The cornerstone of this program was the purchase of $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
- QE2: $2.9 Trillion in Assets
The second QE program ran from November 2010 to June 2011, and included purchases of $600B in longer-term Treasury securities.
- Operation Twist (Maturity Extension Program)
To further decrease long-term rates, the Fed used the proceeds from its maturing short-term Treasury bills to purchase longer-term assets. These purchases, known as Operation Twist, did not expand the Fed’s balance sheet, and were concluded in December 2012.
- QE3: $4.5 Trillion in Assets
Beginning in September 2012, the Fed began purchasing MBS at a rate of $40B/month. In January 2013, this was supplemented with the purchase of long-term Treasury securities at a rate of $45B/month. Both programs were concluded in October 2014.
- Balance Sheet Normalization Program: $3.7 Trillion in Assets
The Fed began to wind-down its balance sheet in October 2017. Starting at an initial rate of $10B/month, the program called for a $10B/month increase every quarter, until a final reduction rate of $50B/month was reached.
- QE4: $6 Trillion and Counting
In October 2019, the Fed began purchasing Treasury bills at a rate of $60B/month to ease liquidity issues in overnight lending markets. While not officially a QE program, these purchases still affect the Fed’s balance sheet.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit U.S. shores, however, the Fed pulled out all the stops. It cut its target interest rate to zero for the first time ever, injected $1.5 trillion into the economy (with more stimulus to come), and reduced the overnight reserve requirement to zero.
Despite receiving little attention in the media, this third measure may be the most significant. For protection against bank runs, U.S. banks have historically been required to hold 10% of their liabilities in cash reserves. Under QE4, this requirement no longer stands.
No End in Sight
Now that the Fed is undertaking its most aggressive QE program yet, it’s a tough guess as to when equilibrium will return, if ever.
After nearly two years of draw-downs, Fed assets fell by just $0.7 trillion—in a matter of weeks, however, this progress was completely retraced.
QE4 is showing that what goes up, may not necessarily come down.
Bridging the Gap: Wealth Isn’t Just for the Wealthy
The UK has a financial adviser gap, leaving about 51 million adults without advice. Learn how wealthtech makes investing accessible for everyone.
In the UK, money is the #1 cause of stress—ranking above physical health, work, or family.
When people begin investing, they see immediate emotional benefits compared to non-investors. In fact, investors are 16 percentage points happier, and 23 percentage points more positive about their well-being.
However, only 37% of Brits hold market-based investments. So why aren’t more people taking steps to invest? Today’s infographic from BlackRock outlines the barriers people face, and how wealthtech can help address these issues at scale.
The Wealth Problem
A variety of hurdles keep people from taking control of their finances.
- Lack of Resources: 59% of Brits feel they don’t have enough money to invest.
- Lack of Knowledge: 39% say a lack of knowledge holds them back.
- Fear of Failure: 34% are afraid of losing everything if they invest.
All of these factors culminate in insufficient investing. In fact, 50% of the €26 trillion European wealth market is currently in uninvested cash, earning zero interest.
What’s the Current Solution?
Traditionally, investment advisers helped tackle these issues. However, investors have faced challenges accessing professional advice in recent years.
A shortage of UK advisers is a main contributing factor:
- There are only 26,700 advisers, who can service an average of 100 clients each.
- This leaves over 51 million adults without professional advice.
Among available advisers, many impose investment minimums or fees that create barriers for lower-income populations. Financial advisers charge an average of £150/hour, and half of all surveyed advisers turned away clients with less than £50,000 to invest.
With so many hurdles to overcome, how can Brits take charge of their investments?
A Modern Solution
Wealth technology—or simply wealthtech—helps address these issues at scale, offering four main digital-first solutions:
- Helps investors build better portfolios.
Gone are the days of rudimentary spreadsheets. With the help of algorithms and machine learning, investors can now automatically build sophisticated portfolios.
- Helps advisors scale their services.
The automation of time-consuming processes allows advisers to service more clients.
- Reaches more people.
Wealthtech is accessible for all, not just the wealthy. For example, micro-investing apps allow investors to make small, regular contributions without paying a commission.
- Modernises infrastructure.
Wealthtech updates old legacy systems with more streamlined, automated systems. As a result, paper-based processes are replaced with mobile transactions that can be done with the click of a button.
These benefits can be applied across various branches of wealth management.
The Wealthtech Ecosystem
Investors can choose one of three main paths, based on their level of knowledge and interest.
“Do It Yourself” Investing
Confident investors who enjoy managing their own money can trade securities through self-directed online platforms.
“Do It For Me” Investing
Novice investors can use platforms that execute trades on their behalf, such as micro-investing or robo-advisers.
“Do It With Me” Investing
For investors in the middle of this spectrum, certain platforms offer a hybrid of digital transactions and professional advice.
With a wide variety of solutions available, investing has never been easier.
It’s clear Brits are open to the shift: 64% say new technology would help them be more involved in their investments.
As wealthtech evolves, it will be seamlessly integrated into daily life as part of a holistic financial services offering. Traditional barriers will be broken down, empowering individuals to take charge of their financial future.
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