News / USA

    Americans Rush to Pay Federal Income Tax

    April 15 deadline looms

    Americans fill out forms at an Internal Revenue Service office in 1920, seven years after the personal income tax was introduced.
    Americans fill out forms at an Internal Revenue Service office in 1920, seven years after the personal income tax was introduced.

    Multimedia

    Audio

    It's late afternoon on a gorgeous spring day in New York, a time when many people might be expected to relax and smell the roses.

    The taxman cometh

    But not Jose Torres. He knows that Thursday is April 15, and he's worried about the deadline for filing his federal income tax return and paying the bill.

    "And I'm not feeling good right now at all," he says.

    Michelle has met the deadline. Still, she is also anxious about whether her tax forms were filled out correctly.

    "People are always afraid of filing their taxes. Every year there are new tax laws, tax regulations. People aren't sure. So people are always afraid," says Michelle.

    History of taxes

    Personal income taxes were not always so complicated. In fact, there was no personal income tax at all until 1913. Before that, the federal government got its funds from customs duties, tariffs, and from excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

    Professor Richard Sylla of New York University’s Stern School of Business has a doctorate in economics from Harvard, but even he finds the tax paperwork overwhelming.
    Professor Richard Sylla of New York University’s Stern School of Business has a doctorate in economics from Harvard, but even he finds the tax paperwork overwhelming.

    Economics professor Richard Sylla of New York University's Stern School of Business says that when the U.S. Congress first established the federal income tax, only the wealthiest 10 percent or so of Americans had to pay it, and then, only at a rate of just six percent of their gross income, or less.

    "The rates went up a little bit in World War I, but came down in the 1920s. Then they began to go up in the 1930s and the Depression when Franklin Roosevelt came in and thought the rich ought to pay a bigger share," says Sylla. "But the real gain in the income tax came in World War II. In the war, the rates went up to very high levels, as high as 90 percent. It was done as a sort of wartime measure, but it stayed on ever after and made the income a greater source of government revenue."

    Complicated forms

    According to Sylla, that is when the tax code began to get complicated.

    "Some of those high rates were perceived by people who paid them and government officials as confiscatory, taking too much money from people. And so then Congress began to add a lot of loop holes so nobody really paid the 90 percent. They got oil depletion allowances and all kinds of special rates for capital gains," he says.

    "And congressmen, they do the bidding of their constituents. And sometimes they get campaign contributions from very wealthy constituents, and so they sneak special breaks into the tax code that helps some of these wealthy constituents, and they are rewarded with campaign contributions and things like that. It's just the way our system works."

    Edgard Rico runs a neighborhood tax preparation business on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City.
    Edgard Rico runs a neighborhood tax preparation business on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City.

    That system has become so complicated that Sylla, who boasts a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, often made mistakes in figuring out how much income tax he owed. Today, he relies on a computer program to help him out, while others turn to national tax preparation chains like H&R Block.

    Added responsibilities

    Sylla notes that the business of the federal government itself has changed radically over the past two centuries. During most of the 19th century, state and local governments were far larger than the federal government, which used about four percent of gross domestic product to provide its services.

    "But in the 20th century, as the US became a superpower, fought major wars and became the main source of defending the world against the Communists — and now, sort of policing the world in a way — the U.S. government grew to be a bigger fraction of the GDP," says Sylla. "So that now the taxes take about 20 to 25 percent of the GDP, and government spending at the federal level is at 20 to 25 percent of the GDP."

    Most federal tax revenue goes to pay for programs such as Medicare health insurance for seniors, road building and national defense. It's a price many everyday New Yorkers like Jimmy are willing to pay — sort of.

    "Well, I think it's a necessary thing for society. It's supposed to help with public things — sanitation, police, things that other people need. So I think it's a necessary thing," says Jimmy. "I just think it's too high. There is a lot of waste."

    Where does it go?

    A huge proportion of federal taxes go to pay the interest on the national debt, which according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury stands today at almost $13 trillion.

    Professor Sylla says the deficit itself is rooted in the contradictory ways Americans view government and its proper role.

    "I think there is a bias in this system where government spending programs are popular but the taxes necessary to pay for those programs are unpopular so we don't raise our taxes enough to pay for what we want government to spend. And then we have more debt. We can't continue to have this disconnect between large spending programs and an aversion to taxes to pay for them."

    Thoughts for everyday Americans to mull over this tax season, as they stand in line at the post office waiting to mail the government its annual due before the April 15 midnight deadline.

    You May Like

    Candidates' Comments Fly Like New Hampshire Snowflakes

    Four days ahead of the country's first-in-the-nation Republican and Democratic party primary elections, surveys show the parties' contests tightening

    South Korea Says North Korea Moving Closer to Rocket Launch

    In phone call, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agree that Pyongyang's move would be 'provocative'

    Australian Commander: IS Changing Tactics

    Head of Australian forces in Middle East talks with VOA about training Iraqi troops, countering evolving Islamic State efforts and defeating extremism

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.