Impoverishment by Taxation


Viewed in the aggregate, the U.S. fiscal system is progressive, reduces inequality, and cuts poverty. The system improves on market outcomes by transferring income from rich to poor. Yet this bird’s eye view rings hollow on the ground, where millions of low-income taxpayers across the United States are made poor or poorer by paying their state and federal taxes. In truth, while the U.S. fiscal system may be broadly equalizing and poverty reducing, for many struggling households, it is impoverishing.This Article offers a new way to measure taxation of low-income households in the United States, presenting a concept called fiscal impoverishment. Taxpayers are fiscally impoverished when they are made poor or poorer by paying state and federal taxes, after accounting for the offsetting cash or near-cash public benefits they receive. Distinct from the aggregate and anonymous measures by which we typically assess our tax and transfer system, fiscal impoverishment is dynamic and individualized. It highlights individual human dignity and implicates the economic responsibilities of the state vis-à-vis low-income taxpayers.In addition to introducing the concept, the Article sketches the scope of fiscal impoverishment throughout the United States and recommends adopting impoverishment analysis to guide tax reform at all levels of government. Using stylized households, it explores net tax burdens at various income levels across all fifty states. In combination with U.S. Treasury and Census data, this work reveals that fiscal impoverishment is significant—affecting millions of households—and highly variable—based on a patchwork of federal and state tax and transfer programs. Patterns of impoverishment track familiar safety-net fault lines based on family structure, employment, immigration status, and state of residence. Finally, finding that such impoverishment exists, the Article provides specific reforms and a framework for rethinking taxation of poor households.


federal tax; food stamps; income tax; inequality; Medicaid; poverty; property tax; safety net; SALT; SNAP; state tax; tax; tax policy

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