Tax Rates for Top 400 Earners Fall as Income Soars, IRS Data

By:  David Cay Johnston
Tax Analysts (

The incomes of the top 400 American households soared to a new record high in dollars and as a share of all income in 2007, while the income tax rates they paid fell to a record low, newly disclosed tax data show.

In 2007 the top 400 taxpayers had an average income of $344.8 million, up 31 percent from their average $263.3 million income in 2006, according to figures in a report that the IRS posted to its Web site without announcement that were discovered February 16. (For the report, see Tax Analysts Doc 2010-3372 .)

The figures came at the peak of the last economic cycle and show that widely published reports in major newspapers asserting that the richest Americans are losing relative ground and "becoming poorer" are not supported by the official income data.

The long-term data show that under current tax and economic rules, the incomes of the top earners rise when the economy expands and contract during recessions, only to rise again. Their effective income tax rate fell to 16.62 percent, down more than half a percentage point from 17.17 percent in 2006, the new data show. That rate is lower than the typical effective income tax rate paid by Americans with incomes in the low six figures, which is what each taxpayer in the top group earned in the first three hours of 2007.

Taxpayers on the 95th to 99th steps on the income ladder paid an effective income tax rate of 17.52 percent, according to calculations by the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit research group that favors less taxation and lower rates. Taxpayers in this category earned between $255,000 and $451,000 in 2007, compared with an average daily income of almost $945,000 for the top 400, who paid lower effective tax rates on average.

Payroll taxes did not add a significant burden to the top 400, not changing the rounding of rates by even one decimal. With payroll taxes taken into account, the effective tax rate of the top 400 would be 17.2 percent in 2006 and 16.6 percent in 2007, my analysis shows -- the same as not counting payroll taxes. As a point of comparison, about two-thirds of Americans pay more in Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes than in federal income taxes.

The top 400's share of all income grew from 1.31 cents out of every dollar earned by all Americans to 1.59 cents.

Adjusted for inflation to 2009 dollars, the top 400 enjoyed a 27 percent increase in their income, or nine times the rate of increase for the bottom 90 percent, based on an earlier analysis of tax data published by Profs. Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, economists at the University of California at Berkeley who have been studying global income trends.

Since 1992, the bottom 90 percent of Americans have seen their incomes rise by 13 percent in 2009 dollars, compared with an increase of 399 percent for the top 400.

The annual top 400 report was first made public by the Clinton administration, but the George W. Bush administration shut down access to the report. Its release was resumed a year ago when President Obama took office. The Statistics of Income Division at the IRS created the top 400 reports at the urging of Joel Slemrod, a business professor at the University of Michigan.

The top 400 reports understate actual top incomes because of deferral rules. For example, managers of offshore hedge funds who deferred their gains may not be counted in the top 400 reports, which are based on the figure on the last line of the front page of Form 1040.

At least three hedge fund managers made $3 billion in 2007. It is not known how much, if any, of their income they deferred.

Most of the income going to the top 400 tax returns is from capital. Salaries and wages accounted for only 6.5 percent of the top 400's income in 2007, down from 7.4 percent in 2006 and 26.2 percent in 1992. The average salary rose from 2006 to 2007, however, just at a slower rate than overall income growth.

The biggest source of income was capital gains, which are taxed at a maximum rate of 15 percent. Gains accounted for 66.3 percent of 2007 income for the top 400, up from 62.8 percent in 2006 and 36.1 percent in 1992.

Only 7 of the top 400 have shown up in the report every year, the IRS data showed. Of the 6,400 returns covered by the 16 years of the report, the IRS said that 2,515, or almost 40 percent, appeared one time.

The report shows that the number of the top 400 who paid an effective tax rate of 0 percent to 10 percent declined slightly, to 25 in 2007 from 31 in 2006. In 1992 only 6 of the top 400 paid an effective income tax rate of less than 10 percent.

Another 127 paid 10 percent to 15 percent in 2007, up from 113 in 2006.

Only 33 of the top 400 paid an effective tax rate of 30 percent to 35 percent, which is the maximum federal tax rate.