Americans generally feel they’re being over-taxed, especially around this time of the year. Even their president agrees.
“With lower taxes on America’s middle class and businesses, we will see a new surge of economic growth and development,” Donald Trump said this month, expanding on an earlier promise to cut Uncle Sam’s bill “massively.” But the reality is that the average U.S. worker pays quite a bit less than he would elsewhere in the developed world. And what’s more, this has been the case for a long time.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development analyzed how 35 countries tax wage-earners, making it possible to compare tax burdens across the world’s biggest economies.
Each year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development measures what it calls the “tax wedge,” the gap between what a worker gets paid and what they actually spend or save. Included are income taxes, payroll taxes, and any tax credits or rebates that supplement worker income. Excluded are the countless other ways that governments levy taxes, such as sales and value-added taxes, property taxes, and taxes on investment income and gains.
Guess who came out at the top of the list? No. Not the United States. At the top are Belgium and France, while workers in Chile and New Zealand are taxed the least. America is in the bottom third.
A single worker earning an average wage in Belgium ends up paying a tax rate almost eight times higher than the average single worker in Chile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found.
But one simple number can be deceiving if you’re trying to paint a national picture. Married people and those with children tend to pay different tax rates than single, childless taxpayers. And in most countries, including the U.S., the well-off pay far more than lower-income people.
When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development analyzed married couples with children, the rankings looked a little different. New Zealand ends up with the lowest rate, while France ranks No. 1.
But let’s get back to America. The average single U.S. worker with no kids earned $52,543 last year and paid a combined $13,649 in payroll taxes, federal income tax, state and local government taxes . Their employer pitched in another $4,020 in payroll taxes. That overall rate of 31.7 percent might seem like a lot, but it’s more than 4 points below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average.
In every other scenario analyzed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in its 584-page “Taxing Wages” report, the U.S. tax burden was also below average, from 3 points to almost 6 points depending on the taxpayers’ wages, marital status and number of children. In fact, the tax burden on most American workers hasn’t budged much over the last two decades, despite tax cuts under former President George W. Bush and upper-income tax hikes under former President Barack Obama.
Forty-one states levy an income tax, and many Americans also pay a city or county income tax. To simplify its analysis, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development chose Detroit, Michigan, to represent a typical state and local income tax burden. The state of Michigan levies a below-average income tax rate of 4.25 percent, but Detroit residents must pay an additional city tax of 2.4 percent.
Workers in two of the world’s highest-taxed countries did get some relief last year. The average tax burden for singles fell by 2.5 percentage points in Austria and by 1.3 points in Belgium from 2015 to 2016. Otherwise, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data suggest that a country’s tax burden usually stays remarkably consistent from year to year and decade to decade.
The only reliable way to change your tax burden may be to move.
Ben Steverman writes about personal finance for Bloomberg.