by Jennifer Bird-Pollan, James and Mary Lassiter Associate Professor of Law, University of Kentucky College of Law
Economic inequality can mean a variety of different things, and can be measured in a variety of ways. One might be concerned about absolute inequalities of income or wealth, where, for instance, some members of a society have high incomes, and others have low incomes, or no income at all. One might also be concerned about inequality of opportunity, where, a society does not provide equal chances for all to achieve success, often because of factors outside of an individual’s control, such as that person’s race, gender, or geographic location. However you define or measure it, there is general consensus that economic inequality in the United States is at historically high levels. A variety of factors have contributed to the rise in inequality. Despite the all-American belief in the story of the self-made man and the value of pulling yourself up by your own boot straps, it has become clear over the past few decades that the American tax and transfer system does very little to facilitate upward economic ability in the United States.
Using the federal government to address economic inequality requires two components: the government must raise tax revenue from those with wealth and/or income, and then use it to fund programs that support the lowest income members of society. Unfortunately, our government has been resistant to both of those steps in the past few decades. The highest marginal individual income tax rate was as high as 94 percent in the middle of the 20th Century, while in 2017 the highest marginal tax rate is 39.6 percent. These numbers don’t tell the whole story, since when the highest rate was over 90 percent, it only applied on amounts earned over very high income thresholds (approximately $2.5 million in today’s dollars). By contrast, today’s top marginal rate applies to income over about $400,000. Nonetheless, there has been an overall reduction in the effects of the individual income tax on high-income earners. While the individual income tax is the largest source of revenue in our current tax system, other taxes administered by the federal government have been cut in recent years as well. The federal wealth transfer taxes, including the gift tax and the estate tax, applied to all transfers over $675,000 as recently as 2001. Under current law, individuals can transfer $5,450,000 ($11,900,000 for a married couple) to their heirs without paying a penny of wealth transfer tax. And while our corporate tax rate remains at least nominally relatively high (35 percent) when compared internationally, changes to the tax code that allow for nearly indefinite deferral of corporate tax obligations, as well as an evolution of the kinds of entities taxpayers use to do business significantly reduce the amount of revenue raised through the corporate tax system. In other words, nearly every means the government has to raise tax revenue from the high income and high wealth members of society has been scaled back, reducing the ability of the government to fund the kinds of programs that might fight economic inequality from the bottom up, by funding programs in education, childhood poverty fighting measures, or health programs, just to name a few.