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Visualizing Unequal State Tax Burdens Across America

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Three U.S. maps with the states colored according to the effective tax rate for the top 1%, middle and low income households to show unequal state tax burdens.

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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.

Taxes Included
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.

Income Included
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

RANKSTATELOWEST 20%MIDDLE 60%TOP 1%
1Washington17.8%10.4%3.0%
2Texas13.0%9.4%3.1%
3Florida12.7%7.7%2.3%
4South Dakota11.2%8.4%2.5%
5Nevada10.2%7.1%1.9%
6Tennessee10.5%8.1%2.8%
7Pennsylvania13.8%10.8%6.0%
8Illinois14.4%12.2%7.4%
9Oklahoma13.2%10.3%6.2%
10Wyoming9.6%6.9%2.6%
11Arizona13.0%9.3%5.9%
12Indiana12.8%10.4%6.8%
13Ohio12.3%10.6%6.5%
14Louisiana11.9%9.8%6.2%
15Hawaii15.0%11.5%8.9%
16New Hampshire9.1%7.1%3.0%
17North Dakota10.3%7.7%4.5%
18Alabama9.9%8.6%5.0%
19New Mexico10.6%10.0%6.0%
20Arkansas11.3%10.4%6.9%
21Iowa12.4%10.5%7.7%
22Michigan10.4%9.2%6.2%
23Kansas11.4%10.4%7.4%
24Mississippi10.2%9.8%6.7%
25Kentucky9.5%10.5%6.7%
26Alaska7.0%4.3%2.5%
27Georgia10.7%9.5%7.0%
28Missouri9.9%9.1%6.2%
29Connecticut11.5%11.6%8.1%
30Massachusetts10.0%9.3%6.5%
31North Carolina9.5%9.1%6.4%
32Rhode Island12.1%9.3%7.9%
33Virginia9.8%9.3%7.0%
34Wisconsin10.1%10.4%7.7%
35Colorado8.7%8.6%6.5%
36Nebraska11.1%10.2%8.7%
37West Virginia9.4%8.8%7.4%
38Idaho9.2%8.4%7.2%
39South Carolina8.3%8.3%6.8%
40Utah7.5%8.4%6.7%
41Oregon10.1%8.8%8.1%
42Maryland9.8%10.6%9.0%
43Montana7.9%6.7%6.5%
44New York11.4%12.5%11.3%
45Maine8.7%9.3%8.6%
46New Jersey8.7%10.2%9.8%
47Minnesota8.7%9.8%10.1%
48Delaware5.5%5.8%6.5%
49Vermont8.7%9.4%10.4%
50District of Columbia6.3%9.8%9.5%
51California10.5%8.9%12.4%

* 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.

effective us state and local tax rates

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.

Property Taxes

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.

Income Taxes

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.

equality and personal income tax

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.

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Finance

Charted: How Long Does it Take Unicorns to Exit?

There are roughly 1,400 unicorns—startups worth $1 billion or more. How many years does it take these giants to get acquired or go public?

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How Long For Unicorns to Exit?

How Long Does it Take For Unicorns to Exit?

For most unicorns—startups with a $1 billion valuation or more—it can take years to see a liquidity event.

Take Twitter, which went public seven years after its 2006 founding. Or Uber, which had an IPO after a decade of operation in 2019. After all, companies first have to succeed and build up their valuation in order to not go bankrupt or dissolve. Few are able to succeed and capitalize in a quick and tidy manner.

So when do unicorns exit, either successfully through an IPO or acquisition, or unsuccessfully through bankruptcy or liquidation? The above visualization from Ilya Strebulaev breaks down the time it took for 595 unicorns to exit from 1997 to 2022.

Unicorns: From Founding to Exit

Here’s how unicorn exits broke down over the last 25 years. Data was collected by Strebulaev at the Venture Capital Initiative in Stanford and covers exits up to October 2022:

Years
(Founding to Exit)
Unicorn ExampleNumber of Unicorns
1997‒2022
1YouTube10
2Instagram31
3Groupon41
4Zynga43
5Salesforce36
6Alphabet (Google)51
7Tesla35
8Zoom59
9Coursera44
10Uber Technologies45
11WeWork46
12Airbnb35
13Credit Karma18
14SimilarWeb19
1523andMe15
16Sonos11
17Roblox12
18Squarespace6
19Vizio9
>20Cytek17

Overall, unicorns exited after a median of eight years in business.

Companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Indeed are among the unicorns that exited in exactly eight years, which in total made up 10% of tracked exits. Another major example is Zoom, which launched in 2011 and went public in 2019 at a $9.2 billion valuation.

There were also many earlier exits, such as YouTube’s one-year turnaround from 2005 founding to 2006 acquisition by Google. Groupon also had an early exit just three years after its founding in 2008, after turning down an even earlier acquisition exit (also through Google).

In total, unicorn exits within 11 years or less accounted for just over three-quarters of tracked exits from 1997 to 2022. Many of the companies that took longer to exit also took longer to reach unicorn status, including website company Squarespace, which was founded in 2003 but didn’t reach a billion-dollar valuation until 2017 (and listed on the NYSE in 2021).

Unicorns, by Exit Strategy

Broadly speaking, there are three main types of exits: going public through an IPO, SPAC, or direct listing, being acquired, or liquidation/bankruptcy.

The most well-known are IPOs, or initial public offerings. These are the most common types of unicorn exits in strong market conditions, with 2021 seeing 79 unicorn IPOs globally, with $83 billion in proceeds.

20212022% Change
# Unicorn IPOs7913-84%
Proceeds$82.9B$5.3B-94%

But the number of IPOs drops drastically given weaker market performance, as seen above. At the end of 2022, an estimated 91% of unicorn IPOs listed since 2021 had share prices fall below their IPO price.

A less common unicorn exit is an SPAC (special purpose acquisition company), although they’ve been gaining momentum and were used by WeWork and BuzzFeed. With an SPAC, a shell company raises money in an IPO and merges with a private company to take it public.

Finally, while an IPO lists new shares to the public with an underwriter, a direct listing sells existing shares without an underwriter. Though it was historically seen as a cheaper IPO alternative, some well-known unicorns have used direct listings including Roblox and Coinbase.

And as valuations for unicorns (and their public listings) have grown, acquisitions have become less frequent. Additionally, many major firms have been buying back shares since 2022 to shore up investor confidence instead of engaging in acquisitions.

Slower Exit Activity

While the growth of unicorns has been exponential over the last decade, exit activity has virtually ground to a halt in 2023.

Investor caution and increased conservation of capital have contributed to the lack of unicorn exits. As of the second quarter of 2023, just eight unicorns in the U.S. exited. These include Mosaic ML, an artificial intelligence startup, and carbon recycling firm LanzaTech.

As exit activity declines, companies may halt listing plans and eventually slow expansion and cut costs. What’s uncertain is whether or not this lull in unicorn exits—and declining influx of private capital influx—is temporary or part of a long-term readjustment.

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