As Americans sit down to file their federal tax returns, a simple question comes to mind -- what's a "fair share" to give the federal government in taxes?
For half the working population, fair means paying almost no income taxes at all.
"The top 10 percent income earners pay about 70 percent of federal income taxes," says Will McBride of the Tax Foundation. "The bottom 50 percent of tax filers have, they pay almost no federal income tax. They pay about 3 percent of federal income taxes."
President Obama’s phrase that everyone should “pay our fair share of taxes” has become something of a political mantra. He has used the expression in dozens of speeches, beginning back in his State of Union address in January. More recently, he told University students in Virginia, "we do expect everyone to do their fair share.”
But for many of the people who pay no taxes, the government also allows tax credits, which end up providing refunds.
"Close to a hundred billion in checks sent out by the IRS (go) to folks who have no tax liability," McBride said. "So the IRS is becoming a spending agency."
Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, put it this way: "Half of the people who don’t pay anything in federal income taxes -- about half of them pay less than zero."
But Brooks says the system is tilted even more toward those in the middle class and below because they also get services from the federal government. As a result the per capita value of government spending exceeds what those individuals pay in federal taxes.
"Right now about 70 percent of Americans take more out of the tax system than they put into it, according to the Tax Foundation," Brooks said."That's something that should really alarm a lot of Americans."
The policies that left so many people paying no income taxes have been supported by presidents of both parties, and despite what Americans tell pollsters they believe is fair, that’s not how it shakes out.
"The interesting thing is that about two-thirds of Americans think that everybody should pay something,” Brooks said, "so they remember that our government isn't free."