August 2015

Changes in the Distribution of After-Tax Wealth: Has Income Tax Policy Increased Wealth Inequality?

Adam Looney and Kevin B. Moore


A substantial share of the wealth of Americans is held in tax-deferred form such as in retirement accounts or as unrealized capital gains. Most data and statistics on assets and wealth is reported on a pre-tax basis, but pre-tax values include an implicit tax liability and may not provide as accurate a measure of the financial position or material well-being of families. In this paper, we describe the distribution of tax-deferred assets in the SCF from 1989 to 2013, provide new estimates of the income tax liabilities implicit in those assets, and present new statistics on the level and distribution of after-tax net worth. The results of our analysis suggest that, relative to published statistics on pre-tax net worth, the distribution of after-tax wealth is slightly less concentrated at each point in time and the effectiveness of the income tax system in reducing wealth inequality has decreased during the last decade. We find the reduction in the long-term capital gains rate is the primary reason for the muted effectiveness of the income tax system in reducing wealth inequality.

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Keywords: Inequality, taxation, wealth


PDF: Full Paper

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Last Update: June 19, 2020