Here’s who gets the biggest tax breaks, in one chart (okay, six)

May 30, 2013

The CBO is out with a big new report on who gets what out of tax expenditures, the deduction, credits, and exclusions that have grown to cost the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

Here's the headline: the 10 major expenditures examined in the report cost the government $900 billion this year and will cost almost $12 trillion over the decade to come. That's more than Medicare, defense or Social Security.

So who's getting all this money? The affluent, for the most part. Nearly half of the budgetary cost of the expenditures went to people in the top income quintile, which, for a family of four, means families making over $162,800 a year pre-tax:

As a share of individuals' income, the level of benefit doesn't differ that much by class. In fact, the very poorest and the very richest each do better than those in the middle:

It's also worth noting that the kind of expenditures matters a lot in terms of who benefits. Refundable credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Child Tax Credit are a huge deal for the bottom quintile, but they're basically worthless for the top one percent:

On the other hand, itemized deductions for state and local taxes, charitable contributions, and mortgage interest primarily benefit the rich*:

Same goes, unsurprisingly, for the lower rates on capital gains and dividend income:

Exclusions, or types of income that are just excluded from taxation (including, in many cases, payroll taxation) entirely, are a more mixed bag. The biggest exclusion, that for employer-provided health insurance, gives the most benefit to the bottom quintile, but the bottom 90 percent all together get about the same out of it. But the very rich don't get much at all. On the other hand, other exclusions, such that for pension contributions and earnings, tend to benefit the wealthy more:

* I can't break down the contribution by deduction, sadly, as they interact with each other; the interactions between credits and exclusions, by contrast, are minimal.

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Timothy B. Lee | May 30, 2013