Forty-four of 50 US states worsen inequality with ‘upside-down’ taxes

A total of 44 of the 50 US states worsen inequality by making the wealthy pay a lesser share of their income in taxes than lower income people, a new analysis has found.

State and local tax regimes are “upside-down”, the new research finds, with weak or non-existent personal income taxes in many states allowing richer Americans to avoid tax. A reliance on sales and excise taxes, considered regressive because they disproportionately impact the poor, has helped fuel this inequality, according to the report.

“When you ask people what they think a fair tax code looks like, almost nobody says we should have the richest pay the least,” said Carl Davis, research director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), which conducted the analysis.

“And yet when we look around the country, the vast majority of states have tax systems that do just that. There’s an alarming gap here between what the public wants and what state lawmakers have delivered.”

Only six states, plus the District of Columbia, have tax systems that reduce inequality rather than worsen it, with the poorest fifth of people paying a tax rate 60% higher, on average, than the top 1% of households.

The super-wealthy are treated particularly lightly by the tax system, with the top 1% paying less than every other income group across 42 states. In most states, 36 in all, the poorest residents are taxed at a higher rate than any other group.

The most regressive states in terms of taxation are, in order, Florida, Washington, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Nevada. The least regressive jurisdictions are DC, Minnesota, Vermont, New York and New Jersey.

Various state-level policies, such as cutting taxes on the wealthy to supposedly drive economic activity, has worsened this situation, the report found. Inequality in recent decades has been far starker in the US than in other comparable countries and while some pandemic-era interventions, such as a child tax credit, lessened the burden on the poorest in society, many of those measures have now lapsed.

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