Income Tax

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A charge imposed by government on the annual gains of a person, corporation, or other taxable unit derived through work, business pursuits, investments, property dealings, and other sources determined in accordance with the INTERNAL REVENUE CODE or state law.

Taxes have been called the building block of civilization. In fact, taxes existed in Sumer, the first organized society of record, where their payment carried great religious meaning. Taxes were also a fundamental part of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The religious aspect of taxation in Renaissance Italy is depicted in the Brancacci Chapel, in Florence. The fresco Rendering of the Tribute Money depicts the gods approving the Florentine income tax. In the United States, the federal tax laws are set forth in the Internal Revenue Code and enforced by the INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE (IRS).


The origin of taxation in the United States can be traced to the time when the colonists were heavily taxed by Great Britain on everything from tea to legal and business documents that were required by the Stamp Tax. The colonists' disdain for this taxation without representation

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(so-called because the colonies had no voice in the establishment of the taxes) gave rise to revolts such as the Boston Tea Party. However, even after the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the main source of revenue for the newly created states was money received from customs and excise taxes on items such as carriages, sugar, whiskey, and snuff. Income tax first appeared in the United States in 1862, during the Civil War. At that time only about one percent of the population was required to pay the tax. A flat-rate income tax was imposed in 1867. The income tax was repealed in its entirety in 1872.

Income tax was a rallying point for the Populist party in 1892, and had enough support two years later that Congress passed the Income Tax Act of 1894. The tax at that time was two percent on individual incomes in excess of $4,000, which meant that it reached only the wealthiest members of the population. The Supreme Court struck down the tax, holding that it violated the constitutional requirement that direct taxes be apportioned among the states by population (POLLOCK V. FARMERS' LOAN & TRUST, 158 U.S. 601, 15 S. Ct. 912, 39 L. Ed. 1108 [1895]). After many years of debate and compromise, the SIXTEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution was ratified in 1913, providing Congress with the power to lay and collect taxes on income without apportionment among the states. The objectives of the income tax were the equitable distribution of the tax burden and the raising of revenue.

Since 1913 the U.S. income tax system has become very complex. In 1913 the income tax laws were contained in eighteen pages of legislation; the explanation of the TAX REFORM ACT OF 1986 was more than thirteen hundred pages long (Pub. L. 99-514, Oct. 22, 1986, 100 Stat. 2085). Commerce Clearing House, a publisher of tax information, released a version of the Internal Revenue Code in the early 1990s that was four times thicker than its version in 1953.

Changes to the tax laws often reflect the times. The flat tax of 1913 was later replaced with a graduated tax. After the United States entered WORLD WAR I, the War Revenue Act of 1917 imposed a maximum tax rate for individuals of 67 percent, compared with a rate of 13 percent in 1916. In 1924 Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, speaking to Congress about the high level of taxation, stated,

The present system is a failure. It was an emergency measure, adopted under the pressure of war necessity and not to be counted upon as a permanent part of our revenue structure?. The high rates put pressure on taxpayers to reduce their taxable income, tend to destroy individual initiative and enterprise, and seriously impede the development of productive business?. Ways will always be found to avoid taxes so destructive in their nature, and the only way to save the situation is to put the taxes on a reasonable basis that will permit business to go on and industry to develop.

Consequently, the Revenue Act of 1924 reduced the maximum individual tax rate to 43 percent (Revenue Acts, June 2, 1924, ch. 234, 43 Stat. 253). In 1926 the rate was further reduced to 25 percent.

The Revenue Act of 1932 was the first tax law passed during the Great Depression (Revenue Acts, June 6, 1932, ch. 209, 47 Stat. 169). It increased the individual maximum rate from 25 to 63 percent, and reduced personal exemptions from $1,500 to $1,000 for single persons, and from $3,500 to $2,500 for married couples. The NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL RECOVERY ACT OF 1933 (NIRA), part of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's NEW DEAL, imposed a five percent excise tax on dividend receipts, imposed a capital stock tax and an excess profits tax, and suspended all deductions for losses (June 16, 1933, ch. 90, 48 Stat. 195). The repeal in 1933 of the EIGHTEENTH AMENDMENT, which had prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, brought in an estimated $90 million in new liquor taxes in 1934. The SOCIAL SECURITY ACT OF 1935 provided for a wage tax, half to be paid by the employee and half by the employer, to establish a federal retirement fund (Old Age Pension Act, Aug. 14, 1935, ch. 531, 49 Stat. 620).

The Wealth Tax Act, also known as the Revenue Act of 1935, increased the maximum tax rate to 79 percent, the Revenue Acts of 1940 and 1941 increased it to 81 percent, the Revenue Act of 1942 raised it to 88 percent, and the Individual Income Tax Act of 1944 raised the individual maximum rate to 94 percent.

The post-World War II Revenue Act of 1945 reduced the individual maximum tax from 94 percent to 91 percent. The Revenue Act of 1950, during the KOREAN WAR, reduced it to 84.4 percent, but it was raised the next year to 92 percent (Revenue Act of 1950, Sept. 23, 1950, ch. 994, Stat. 906). It remained at this level until 1964, when it was reduced to 70 percent.

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The Revenue Act of 1954 revised the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, making major changes that were beneficial to the taxpayer, including providing for CHILD CARE deductions (later changed to credits), an increase in the charitable contribution limit, a tax credit against taxable retirement income, employee deductions for business expenses, and liberalized depreciation deductions. From 1954 to 1962, the Internal Revenue Code was amended by...

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