The 51 Percent Zombie Lie

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Every morning I take a couple of short breaks from the keyboard to do some stretching exercises that are designed to ease my neck and shoulder pain. I usually turn on the TV while I’m doing this, and that’s pretty much my entire exposure to Fox News. So what were they going on about a few minutes ago while I stretched? The fact that people get really upset when they hear that 51 percent of Americans pay no taxes.

Well, I’d be upset too. Who the hell are these freeloaders? Answer: They don’t exist, of course. From the Tax Foundation, an organization that even conservatives ought to be willing to credit, here’s a report from a few years ago showing the total tax burden on various income groups in America:

Other estimates put the low-end tax burden higher and the high-end tax burden lower, but no matter. This tells the story. The blue bars don’t cherry pick just the federal income tax to make a dumb partisan talking point; they show how much each group actually pays in total taxes. Bottom line: Poor people pay less in taxes than rich people, as they should, but it’s very far from zero. The midpoint of that first quintile is about $11,000, and even a household earning that little pays about $1,400 in taxes. The household in the second quintile, earning a munificent $30,000 per year, pays $7,000 in taxes.

I know we live in a post-fact environment, but those are the facts. Pass ’em around. There are no freeloaders here.

UPDATE: Just to clear this up in case there’s any misunderstanding, it’s approximately true that 51 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. However, conservatives routinely abbreviate this by claiming that 51 percent of Americans pay no taxes. This is the zombie lie. Conservatives get very upset when you call them on it, but that never makes them stop.

So where does the rest come from? Well, in addition to federal income taxes, Americans pay excise taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, state income taxes, and various other taxes. That’s where the blue bar in the chart comes from. In one form or another, even poor Americans pay a fair chunk of their income in taxes.

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