Almost all governments are funded, at least in part, by some form of taxation on their citizens. Most of these taxes are collected at the time of a sale or service, but others are collected at the end of a 12-month period called a fiscal year. One such yearly levy is the oft-dreaded income tax. This is essentially a bill from the federal and state governments for individual earnings through salaries and investment profits. It is considered a progressive tax because the individual's financial obligation rises with the level of reportable income.
The United States has not always had an official income tax, however. After years of oppression under the thumbs of robber barons and corrupt corporate executives, early 20th century Congressional leaders created a national income tax law in 1914 primarily to force the wealthiest and greediest to pay their fair share. Eventually this reform would trickle down to the middle and lower working classes. Although the tax still remains progressive, many of the wealthiest companies and individuals benefit from a number of legal exemptions.
Thankfully, income tax can only be levied on positive income, not a net loss. The basic tax structure allows individuals to earn a certain amount of non-taxable income. This is generally calculated by the standard deduction amount listed on the federal and state tax forms. If an individual has not earned more than the standard deduction amount (generally a few thousand dollars), then he or she would not owe anything.
The problem faced by wage earners, however, is that the payroll department is obligated to deduct a set percentage of money from each paycheck for tax purposes. Federal and state income tax is deducted according to a specific calculation based on a wage earner's marital and dependency status. Other payroll deductions are also made to cover Social Security (FICA) contributions, insurance, union dues and any voluntary contributions. The amount collected is later reported on an official tax form called a W-2. Income without such tax deductions may be reported on another form called a 1099.
During tax season, from January to April 14th, individuals must report all of their total income from both wages and profits from investments. The standard deduction is then subtracted from the total and the remainder is considered taxable income. A chart provided with the official 1040 tax forms reveals the actual amount owed to the government. If the amount withheld by the payroll department is higher than this number, the government will issue a refund for the difference. If the W-2 number is lower, then the individual owes more income tax and must pay the Internal Revenue Service.
For most middle class taxpayers, income tax liability runs around 15% of their gross income. Individuals and businesses can legally deduct many expenses related to their occupations, which can significantly reduce this amount. Charitable donations can also be used to offset income tax obligations.