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What Is Income Tax?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

Income Tax

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.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to SmartCapitalMind, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon240634 — On Jan 15, 2012

The purpose of paying income taxes is your duty towards nation and duty towards mankind. --p.varma

By anon136230 — On Dec 21, 2010

you have to pay income tax to pay for things like roads, public schools, unnecessary wars, firefighters/police, social security, and things like that.

By anon87557 — On May 31, 2010

You are right. Why must we pay the income taxes. Why give money to government?

By anon10239 — On Mar 22, 2008

It seems to me that there is something wrong with a tax system that is so high it keeps the majority of working Americans from being able to keep enough of their income to save or accumulate wealth. According to the IRS, 80% of Americans make $60,000 or less a year while middle income (financial independence) is approximately $100,000 a year or higher depending on where you live, and the maximum percentage of income tax (usually 30%) is withheld starting at $70,000. It makes you wonder who our people in government are concerned about?

By anon5768 — On Dec 05, 2007

what is the purpose of paying income taxes?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to SmartCapitalMind, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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