Policy Documents

Toppling off the Fiscal Cliff: Whose Taxes Rise and How Much?

Roberton Williams, Eric Toder, Donald Marron, and Hang Nguyen –
October 1, 2012

The fiscal cliff threatens an unprecedented tax increase at year end. Taxes would rise by more than $500 billion in 2013—an average of almost $3,500 per household—as almost every tax cut enacted since 2001 would expire. Middle-income households would see an average increase of almost $2,000. Policymakers are rightly concerned about the potential impact on families and the economy of such a sudden tax increase and are considering proposals to delay, repeal, or offset parts of the cliff. To inform that discussion, this report provides a detailed look at the revenue, distributional, and incentive effects of these increases. Almost 90 percent of Americans would see their taxes rise if we topple off the cliff. For most households, the two biggest increases would be the expiration of the temporary cut in Social Security taxes and the expiration of the 2001/2003 tax cuts. Households with low incomes would be particularly affected by the expiration of tax credits expanded or created by the 2009 stimulus. And households with high incomes would be hit hard by the expiration of the 2001/2003 tax cuts that apply at upper income levels and the start of the new health reform taxes. Taken together, the scheduled changes would significantly increase the marginal tax rates that can influence behavior. Average marginal tax rates would increase by 5 percentage points on labor income, by 7 points on capital gains, and by more than 20 points on dividends.