PolitiFact: Rubio’s figure off, but point is right on payroll tax

Sen. Marco Rubio on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25, 2017, during a session about the importance of the child tax credit. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Sen. Marco Rubio on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25, 2017, during a session about the importance of the child tax credit. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has worked to persuade Republican leaders to expand the child tax credit so the tax overhaul benefits more working families.

To do this, Rubio said he wants to make the credit refundable against payroll taxes. The Republican tax framework proposes increasing the credit from the current $1,000 and raising the income threshold at which the credit phases out, but it does not include plans to make it refundable against payroll taxes.

A good chunk of people don’t pay income taxes because the tax code exempts them.

Experts have told us the amount of tax relief working families receive under the plan greatly depends on what happens to the child tax credit. But we wondered about Rubio’s point about payroll taxes. (He said “voters,” but we’ll focus on the available data for households.)

Rubio’s exact point is a stretch, but experts said he “has the spirit of the situation right.”

“If the senator was trying to emphasize the widespread burden of the payroll tax as a larger component of most families’ tax burdens, he is right about that,” said Adam Looney, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

For the most part, payroll taxes are one of two things: deductions from an employee’s paycheck, and taxes the employer pays based on the employee’s earnings. The payroll tax is a big money generator for the government, used for social programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

We were not able to identify an exact percentage of Americans (or voters) who only pay the payroll tax, and Rubio’s office didn’t provide any evidence to back his specific claim.

We did find one estimate, from the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, that 44 percent of households paid no federal income tax in 2016. In a subsequent report using the same estimates, the center said about 60 percent of people who paid no income tax still worked and owed payroll taxes.

Based on the center’s estimates, this means about a quarter of all households pay payroll taxes, but not income taxes. That’s half as many as Rubio said.

So where does Rubio’s factoid come from? Rubio spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas pointed to research from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation that shows about 80 percent of taxpayers pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes. (The data behind the analysis came from the Tax Policy Center and the Congressional Budget Office.) Keep in mind, though, that the bottom 40 percent of earners pay no individual income tax.

Len Burman, a Tax Policy Center fellow, said 76 percent of taxpayers in 2017 owe more payroll taxes than income taxes if you include the employer portion of the tax. If you only consider the employee portion, Burman said, 54 percent of households owe more payroll tax than income tax.

Looney also mentioned estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation, which found that the payroll tax represents the largest component of the tax burden for 65 percent of taxpayers.

“The correct observation is that for most people who pay taxes, their payroll tax payments (counting their employers’ payments as their own, which accords with economic theory) are greater than their income tax payments,” said Henry Aaron, a Brookings Institution economist.

It’s worth remembering that people pay a lot of other taxes besides income and payroll taxes: There are federal and state excise taxes, state and local sales taxes, and local property taxes.

Our ruling

Rubio garbled the specific percentage of Americans who pay only payroll taxes, as the closest estimate we could find shows that about one-quarter of all households in 2016 paid the payroll tax but not the income tax.

However, experts said the point Rubio was trying to make — that for most people, the burden of the payroll tax exceeds that of the income tax — is correct.

We rate this claim Half True.

“Close to half of the voters in America, the only tax they pay is the payroll tax.”

— Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017 in an interview