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Extra5/7/2008 12:01 AM ET

The naked truth about income taxes

A peek at the numbers exposes some trends that may surprise you. One example: In 2005, the rich paid a bigger share of the total tax bill than they did in 2000, before Bush's tax cuts.

By Scott Burns

Taxes are unpleasant and unfair. We all know this. And our friends in government work hard to keep it that way.

The only thing about taxes that all Americans can agree on is that someone else should pay them.

Perhaps we can learn something by examining how much we pay in taxes, who pays them and how our tax payments have changed in the last 20 years or so. We can do this pretty easily thanks to one of our tax-supported government agencies, the Internal Revenue Service.

Every year it examines all the returns that are filed and analyzes changes in the patterns of tax payments. The latest year for which the data is complete is 2005. The basic data are available in an imaginatively titled work, "Individual Income Tax Rates and Shares, 2005" (.pdf file).

Here are some of the key lessons of those data:

Historically, little has changed. In 2005, those of us who paid income taxes collectively paid 13.6% of our income. Some paid more. Some paid less. But the average burden wasn't exactly overwhelming.

In fact, for all the drama about George W. Bush's tax cuts, the reality is that our tax burden is about the same today as it was before Bill Clinton was elected president. In the seven years before Clinton, our average tax rate was 13.86%. In 1992, we paid taxes at an average rate of 13.7%, about the same as in 2005.

During the eight years Clinton was in office, the average tax rate rose from 14.1% in 1993 to 16.1% in 2000. In the Bush years since then, the average tax rate has declined from 15.2% to 13.6%.

Do you see high drama here? Do you see gigantic change?

Today, fewer people pay income taxes. In 1986, Americans filed 103 million federal income-tax returns. Of those, 84 million filers had to pay taxes. That's about 81.5% of all returns. By the time Clinton took office, the percentage of filers paying taxes had declined to around 75%. During the Bush years, the percentage of filers who paid taxes has continued to decline. It fell to about 67.4% in 2005.

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This is not a minor number. In 2005, 134 million American households filed tax returns. Only 90 million of them paid any taxes. Though the number of households filing returns rose by 5 million between 2000 and 2005, the number of households actually paying income taxes fell by 6 million. Basically, 11 million lower-income households don't have to pay income taxes that would have had to pay taxes before the Bush tax cuts.

Of course, the federal income tax isn't the only tax that we pay. Anyone who works pays the employment tax, a stiff 15.3% of salaries and wages. Republicans tend to forget this.

Continued: The rich pay more; the poor pay less

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