Democratic Party leaders, President Obama in particular, are forever telling the country that wealthy Americans are taxed at too low a rate and pay too little in taxes. The need to correct this seeming injustice is framed not simply in terms of fairness. Higher tax rates on the wealthy, we’re told, would help balance the budget, allow for more “investment” in America’s future and foster better economic growth for all. In support of this claim, like-minded liberal pundits point out that in the 1950s, when America’s economic might was at its zenith, the rich faced tax rates as high as 91%.
True enough, the top marginal income-tax rate in the 1950s was much higher than today’s top rate of 35%—but the share of income paid by the wealthiest Americans has essentially remained flat since then.
In 1958, the top 3% of taxpayers earned 14.7% of all adjusted gross income and paid 29.2% of all federal income taxes. In 2010, the top 3% earned 27.2% of adjusted gross income and their share of all federal taxes rose proportionally, to 51%.
So if the top marginal tax rate has fallen to 35% from 91%, how in the world has the tax burden on the wealthy remained roughly the same? Two factors are responsible. Lower- and middle-income workers now bear a significantly lighter burden than in the past. And the confiscatory top marginal rates of the 1950s were essentially symbolic—very few actually paid them. In reality the vast majority of top earners faced lower effective rates than they do today.
In 1958, an 81% marginal tax rate applied to incomes above $1.08 million, and the 91% rate kicked in at $3.08 million. These figures are in unadjusted 1958 dollars and correspond today to nominal income levels that are at least 10 times higher. That year, according to Internal Revenue Service records, just 236 of the nation’s 45.6 million tax filers had any income that was taxed at 81% or higher. (The published IRS data do not reveal how many of these were subject to the 91% rate.)