When the Civil War erupted, the Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861, which restored earlier excises taxes and imposed a tax on personal incomes. The income tax was levied at 3 percent on all incomes higher than $800 a year. This tax on personal income was a new direction for a Federal tax system based mainly on excise taxes and customs duties. Certain inadequacies of the income tax were quickly acknowledged by Congress and thus none was collected until the following year.

The 1862 law also made important reforms to the Federal income tax that presaged important features of the current tax. For example, a two-tiered rate structure was enacted, with taxable incomes up to $10,000 taxed at a 3 percent rate and higher incomes taxed at 5 percent. A standard deduction of $600 was enacted and a variety of deductions were permitted for such things as rental housing, repairs, losses, and other taxes paid. In addition, to assure timely collection, taxes were “withheld at the source” by employers.

The need for Federal revenue declined sharply after the war and most taxes were repealed. By 1868, the main source of Government revenue derived from liquor and tobacco taxes. The income tax was abolished in 1872. From 1868 to 1913, almost 90 percent of all revenue was collected from the remaining excises.

Under the Constitution, Congress could impose direct taxes only if they were levied in proportion to each State’s population. Thus, when a flat rate Federal income tax was enacted in 1894, it was quickly challenged and in 1895 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it was a direct tax not apportioned according to the population of each state.

Lacking the revenue from an income tax and with all other forms of internal taxes facing stiff resistance, from 1896 until 1910 the Federal government relied heavily on high tariffs for its revenues. The War Revenue Act of 1899 sought to raise funds for the Spanish-American War through the sale of bonds, taxes on recreational facilities used by workers, and doubled taxes on beer and tobacco. A tax was even imposed on chewing gum. The Act expired in 1902, so that Federal receipts fell from 1.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product to 1.3 percent.

While the War Revenue Act returned to traditional revenue sources following the Supreme Court’s 1895 ruling on the income tax, debate on alternative revenue sources remained lively. The nation was becoming increasingly aware that high tariffs and excise taxes were not sound economic policy and often fell disproportionately on the less affluent. Proposals to reinstate the income tax were introduced by Congressmen from agricultural areas whose constituents feared a Federal tax on property, especially on land, as a replacement for the excises.

Eventually, the income tax debate pitted southern and western Members of Congress representing more agricultural and rural areas against the industrial northeast. The debate resulted in an agreement calling for a tax, called an excise tax, to be imposed on business income, and a Constitutional amendment to allow the Federal government to impose tax on individuals’ lawful incomes without regard to the population of each State.

By 1913, 36 States had ratified the 16th Amendment to the Constitution. In October, Congress passed a new income tax law with rates beginning at 1 percent and rising to 7 percent for taxpayers with income in excess of $500,000. Less than 1 percent of the population paid income tax at the time. Form 1040 was introduced as the standard tax reporting form and, though changed in many ways over the years, remains in use today.

Prior to the enactment of the income tax, most citizens were able to pursue their private economic affairs without the direct knowledge of the government. Individuals earned their wages, businesses earned their profits, and wealth was accumulated and dispensed with little or no interaction with government entities. The income tax fundamentally changed this relationship, giving the government the right and the need to know about all manner of an individual or business’ economic life. Congress recognized the inherent invasiveness of the income tax into the taxpayer’s personal affairs and so in 1916 it provided citizens with some degree of protection by requiring that information from tax returns be kept confidential.

The entry of the United States into World War I greatly increased the need for revenue and Congress responded by passing the 1916 Revenue Act. The 1916 Act raised the lowest tax rate from 1 percent to 2 percent and raised the top rate to 15 percent on taxpayers with incomes in excess of $1.5 million. The 1916 Act also imposed taxes on estates and excess business profits.

Driven by the war and largely funded by the new income tax, by 1917 the Federal budget was almost equal to the total budget for all the years between 1791 and 1916. Needing still more tax revenue, the War Revenue Act of 1917 lowered exemptions and greatly increased tax rates. In 1916, a taxpayer needed $1.5 million in taxable income to face a 15 percent rate. By 1917 a taxpayer with only $40,000 faced a 16 percent rate and the individual with $1.5 million faced a tax rate of 67 percent.

Another revenue act was passed in 1918, which hiked tax rates once again, this time raising the bottom rate to 6 percent and the top rate to 77 percent. These changes increased revenue from $761 million in 1916 to $3.6 billion in 1918, which represented about 25 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even in 1918, however, only 5 percent of the population paid income taxes and yet the income tax funded one-third of the cost of the war.

The economy boomed during the 1920s and increasing revenues from the income tax followed. This allowed Congress to cut taxes five times, ultimately returning the bottom tax rate to 1 percent and the top rate down to 25 percent and reducing the Federal tax burden as a share of GDP to 13 percent. As tax rates and tax collections declined, the economy was strengthened further.

In October of 1929 the stock market crash marked the beginning of the Great Depression. As the economy shrank, government receipts also fell. In 1932, the Federal government collected only $1.9 billion, compared to $6.6 billion in 1920. In the face of rising budget deficits which reached $2.7 billion in 1931, Congress followed the prevailing economic wisdom at the time and passed the Tax Act of 1932 which dramatically increased tax rates once again. This was followed by another tax increase in 1936 that further improved the government’s finances while further weakening the economy. By 1936 the lowest tax rate had reached 4 percent and the top rate was up to 79 percent. In 1939, Congress systematically codified the tax laws so that all subsequent tax legislation until 1954 amended this basic code. The combination of a shrunken economy and the repeated tax increases raised the Federal government’s tax burden to 6.8 percent of GDP by 1940.

Even before the United States entered the Second World War, increasing defense spending and the need for monies to support the opponents of Axis aggression led to the passage in 1940 of two tax laws that increased individual and corporate taxes, which were followed by another tax hike in 1941. By the end of the war the nature of the income tax had been fundamentally altered. Reductions in exemption levels meant that taxpayers with taxable incomes of only $500 faced a bottom tax rate of 23 percent, while taxpayers with incomes over $1 million faced a top rate of 94 percent. These tax changes increased federal receipts from $8.7 billion in 1941 to $45.2 billion in 1945. Even with an economy stimulated by war-time production, federal taxes as a share of GDP grew from 7.6 percent in 1941 to 20.4 percent in 1945. Beyond the rates and revenues, however, another aspect about the income tax that changed was the increase in the number of income taxpayers from 4 million in 1939 to 43 million in 1945.

Another important feature of the income tax that changed was the return to income tax withholding as had been done during the Civil War. This greatly eased the collection of the tax for both the taxpayer and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. However, it also greatly reduced the taxpayer’s awareness of the amount of tax being collected, i.e. it reduced the transparency of the tax, which made it easier to raise taxes in the future.

Tax cuts following the war reduced the Federal tax burden as a share of GDP from its wartime high of 20.9 percent in 1944 to 14.4 percent in 1950. However, the Korean War created a need for additional revenues which, combined with the extension of Social Security coverage to self-employed persons, meant that by 1952 the tax burden had returned to 19.0 percent of GDP.

Throughout the 1950s tax policy was increasingly seen as a tool for raising revenue and for changing the incentives in the economy, but also as a tool for stabilizing macroeconomic activity. The economy remained subject to frequent boom and bust cycles and many policymakers readily accepted the new economic policy of raising or lowering taxes and spending to adjust aggregate demand and thereby smooth the business cycle. Even so, however, the maximum tax rate in 1954 remained at 87 percent of taxable income. While the income tax underwent some manner of revision or amendment almost every year since the major reorganization of 1954, certain years marked especially significant changes. For example, the Tax Reform Act of 1969 reduced income tax rates for individuals and private foundations.

Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the 1970s the United States experienced persistent and rising inflation rates, ultimately reaching 13.3 percent in 1979. Inflation has a deleterious effect on many aspects of an economy, but it also can play havoc with an income tax system unless appropriate precautions are taken. Specifically, unless the tax system’s parameters, i.e. its brackets and its fixed exemptions, deductions, and credits, are indexed for inflation, a rising price level will steadily shift taxpayers into ever higher tax brackets by reducing the value of those exemptions and deductions.

During this time, the income tax was not indexed for inflation and so, driven by a rising inflation, and despite repeated legislated tax cuts, the tax burden rose from 19.4 percent of GDP to 20.8 percent of GDP. Combined with high marginal tax rates, rising inflation, and a heavy regulatory burden, this high tax burden caused the economy to under-perform badly, all of which laid the groundwork for the Reagan tax cut, also known as the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.

source: US Department of the Treasury

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