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Who Really Pays Taxes in America?

By Cheryl Woodard, Executive Director, AskQuestions.org
April 15, 2004

Recent news articles about skyrocketing tax fraud and corporate tax dodging have prompted a high level of public concern about the overall fairness and effectiveness of our current tax system. AskQuestions.org – an online news site that addresses issues raised by public demand – released a report today on “Who Really Pays Taxes in America?”

Drawn primarily from government statistics, the report describes not only how the tax burden has shifted from corporations to private citizens over the past 20 years, but also a disturbing new twist: the richest American households pay about 30 percent less tax – which includes federal, state, and local taxes combined -- than middle-income households pay. And the public apparently understands what’s going on: an AP poll released Tuesday reports that 49 percent of Americans believe their taxes have gone up, not down, as a result of the Bush tax cuts, consider all the new local and state taxes imposed in response to withering Federal grants to the states. And new CNN/Money Magazine poll reports that, "60% of Americans said the Bush tax cut did not personally help them."

In his proposed budget for 2005, President Bush cuts another $6 billion in federal aide to states, even though 30 states already face shortfalls totaling about $40 billion next year and more cutbacks in state spending are inevitable, as well as more increases in local taxes. While there are no national statistics that add up the costs, anecdotal evidence is clear. One California couple received a $100 tax refund from President Bush for 2003, but paid $515 in new local taxes. A self-employed man living in Nassau County, NY got a $300 tax rebate last year, but his property taxes went up $2,250.

While honest taxpayers deal with their growing burden, the independent IRS Oversight Board reported that tax fraud is $311 billion dollars per year – more than federal spending on Medicare in 2003 and greater than the gross revenues of either Walmart or General Electric. The Board continually requests funding to strengthen resources for IRS enforcement, but because some of the biggest campaign contributors may be the country’s worst tax cheaters, the incentives for auditing tax cheats is nil. As a result, audits are focused on those at the bottom of the income scale.

Yesterday, David Cay Johnston reported in The New York Times that corporate audit rates have dropped by half in recent years, and noted that in 2003 the IRS conducted face-to-face audits with only seven out of 1000 corporations (compared to 29 per thousand in 1992).

“If we simply collected the taxes cheaters are withholding from the system, we would have enough money to pay the college fees of every student in America, or to provide health insurance for small business employees,” says the AskQuestions.org report.

AskQuestions.org practices “bottom-up” journalism by inviting the public to submit questions. The most popular questions are handed over to professional researchers and reporters. Answering “Who Really Pays Taxes?” required the AskQuestions.org team to assemble a dozen practical suggestions from a range of experts about increasing the fairness of the tax code while also making it more effective at stimulating sustained economic growth.

Neither Presidential candidate is likely to talk about fraud and favoritism during the election campaign, but voters apparently want answers on these very issues. And the AskQuestions report frames the debate from a voter’s perspective, so that people will be armed with the information they need in order to raise their concerns with the candidates.

Cheryl Woodard is a cofounder of PC Magazine, PC World, Macworld and the Macworld Expos, and author of the book, Starting and Running a Successful Newsletter or Magazine (Nolo Press, 4th edition, 2004). A full-time business consultant to publishers, Woodard also serves on the board of the Independent Press Association.The full report about taxes is available online, along with the public questions and comments that prompted the article at /details.php?id=39

AskQuestions.org is a service of the Public Interest News Gate, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing public access to information.