National Tax Journal

How Marginal Tax Rates Affect Families at Various Levels of Poverty

Elaine Maag, C. Eugene Steuerle, Ritadhi Chakravarti, and Caleb Quakenbush

65 National Tax Journal 759-82 (December 2012)


High marginal tax rates can make moving above poverty very difficult for low-income families. These high tax rates result from increasing direct taxes (both state and federal) as well as decreasing transfer payments (including both Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Depending on which state a person lives, a single parent with two children can face an average marginal tax rate of over 100 percent or as low as 26.6 percent as they move from the poverty level of income to 150 percent of the poverty level. If her earnings are limited to only six months of the year, she may retain transfer benefits for the remaining six months, lowering her marginal rate over the same income range to between 66.0 percent and –17.7 percent for those additional earnings. Our analysis shows how sensitive marginal tax rates are to assumptions about earnings patterns and program participation.

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