FORTUNE MAGAZINE Value Driven by Geoff Colvin
The government's new definition of rich
President Obama's tax plan won't help balance the budget, and it may hurt the upper middle class.
By Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large
Last Updated: May 5, 2009: 12:09 PM ET
(Fortune Magazine) -- Are you rich? If you make $250,000 a year, President Obama and Gov. David Paterson of New York think you are. The SEC disagrees. It tells financial firms that a high-net-worth individual is someone with at least $750,000 parked at a particular institution or someone the firm "reasonably believes" to have a net worth exceeding $1.5 million.
The reason this debate matters is that federal and state governments are looking at the worst deficits ever seen. In their desperate search for funds, they are going to tax some subset of the wealthy. Let's hope they train their cross hairs where they do the least damage.
When President Obama said he would raise taxes on the wealthy, he set the increases to start at an income of about $250,000. Gov. Paterson recently worked out a rise in New York's state income tax that takes effect at the same level. If all that those politicians mean by "rich" is the small portion of the population at the top of the economic heap, then households making over $250,000 is a fair definition: Only about 5% of U.S. households have annual incomes over $200,000.
The flaw in that definition of rich is that plenty of families making $250,000 a year don't feel rich. They probably see themselves as upper middle class, especially if they live in blue-state coastal cities and suburbs. An income of $250,000 is a lot richer in Abilene, Texas, than in New York's Nassau County, where it takes $430,000 to enjoy a similar quality of life, according to bankrate.com. So let's call them the "working rich."
What's troubling about raising the tax burden on the working rich is that this group already pays proportionately more tax than the super-rich. In addition, the working rich aren't as adept at sheltering their wealth from the tax man through deferred-compensation schemes or other loopholes.
In 2006, the most recent year for which information is available, the average tax rate for the working rich was 22.8% - that is, after all was said and done, they ended up paying 22.8% of their adjusted gross income in income tax. The floor for being in the top 1% was an income of $388,806. That same year the average tax rate paid by the super-rich - the 400 filers with the highest