The political debate over recent reforms of the federal income tax in the United States has focused attention on the fairness of taxes. While the Bush administration claims its reforms make taxes fairer, critics counter that the majority of the tax cuts accrue to the wealthy. While the fairness of the federal income tax is an important issue, little attention has been paid to a more important issue: the fairness of the entire U.S. tax system. The federal income tax is one of the most progressive elements of the U.S. tax system; other taxes are regressive including sales and social insurance taxes. Analysis of any particular tax reform proposal is incomplete without consideration of its impact on the overall distribution of taxes. This paper measures the progressiveness (or regressiveness) of each major element of the U.S. tax system, as well as of the tax system as a whole. While the tax system contains a mixture of progressive and regressive taxes, the overall system is slightly progressive. A look at the historical record suggests that the overall distribution of taxes in the United States is currently similar to the distribution of the 1970s. The trend has not been stable though - federal taxes became less progressive during the 1980s and more progressive during the 1990s. Data on the distributional implications of the recent Bush tax cuts indicates a decline in the progressivity of the federal income tax. When assessed in light of all taxes in the U.S., tax cuts to be phased-in under current legislation threaten to reduce or even eliminate any progressiveness from the U.S. tax system. This possibility is particularly likely if tax cuts scheduled for sunset are renewed. Thus, legislators and commentators need to be aware that even if the federal income tax remains quite progressive, the overall U.S. tax system is tending towards a system that falls on each household in approximate proportion to income. The current trend towards a less progressive federal income tax and more regressive state taxes suggests that in the foreseeable future the United States could have a tax system that is regressive overall.


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