Taxes should be fair and horizontal equity defines one principle of tax fairness. It means economic equals should be taxed an equal amount. Horizontal equity applied to taxes on $50,000 of income assures all those who earn $50,000 of income pay the same tax.
Taxation that treats equals equally avoids giving preferences to different sources of income and avoids deductions and exclusions that do not apply equally to all. In practice, the characteristics that define equals vary some depending on personal opinion. For example, in federal taxation a disabled person over age 65 with $50,000 of income pays less tax than someone under age 65 without a disability. Some might ignore age and disability when they define economic equals; others might decide those differences justify unequal tax treatment.
In spite of the difficulty of definition horizontal equity provides a useful guide to consider for tax legislation. It encourages voluntary tax compliance and promotes economic equality by preventing a favored group from making economic gains solely through tax advantages.
In 2003 Congress and the President introduced a new violation of horizontal equity in the federal personal income tax. After 2002 dividend income does not equal wage income for federal taxation. A single taxpayer in 2002 paid $7,767 of federal income tax whether the income was dividend income or wage income. In 2003 a single taxpayer paid $7,360 tax on $50,000 of wage income, but only $3,490 on $50,000 of dividend income. Wage earners paid more than twice as much tax for the same income.
The disadvantage of wage income over dividend income remained a little over double until 2008. In 2008 a single taxpayer paid $6,606.25 tax on $50,000 of wage income, but only $1,275 on $50,000 of dividend income. Wage earners paid more than five times the tax for the same income.
Adjustments in tax brackets, the standard deduction, and the personal exemption increased the disparity after 2008 until by 2012 wage earners paid more than eight times more tax on $50,000 income. In 2012, a single taxpayer paid $6,117.50 tax on $50,000 of wage income, but the personal income tax was only $750 as dividend income.
The disparity increases for a married couple filing jointly even though a married couple with $50,000 of wages or dividend income pays less tax than a single tax payer. In 2012 couples filing a joint return paid no tax on $50,000 of dividend income, but $3,705 on wage income. If both earn wage income of $50,000 they pay $12,185 in federal income tax, but $100,000 of dividend income pays only $1,470 of tax.
The burden of higher taxes on wages falls heavily on younger high school and college graduates since they are least likely to have had time or funds to invest in dividend earning stocks. The difference of the higher taxes on $50,000 of wages over dividends put into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to earn 3 percent annual interest between 2003 and 2012 comes to $53,804.01. For the struggling college graduate living at home it is the capitalized value of the tax system’s contribution to income inequality.
There are other violations of horizontal equity in federal taxation. The treatment of home ownership allows deductions for real estate taxes and home mortgage interest that assure unequal taxes for renters with the same income. Encouraging home ownership with tax deductions illustrates how Congress uses tax policy to encourage or reward activities that reflect America’s social and political values: home ownership is a good thing.
Taxing work at much higher rates than dividends and capital gains suggests a darker side of tax policy. A higher tax on wages discourages work at best, but suggests a declining respect for the wage earning working class. I do not expect an official press announcement to that effect, but as the ol’saw goes, actions speak louder than words.