Progressive Taxation, Income Inequality, and Happiness

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Income inequality has become one of the more widely debated social issues today. The current article explores the role of progressive taxation in income inequality and happiness. Using historical data in the United States from 1962 to 2014, we found that income inequality was substantially smaller in years when the income tax was more progressive (i.e., a higher tax rate for higher income brackets), even when controlling for variables like stock market performance and unemployment rate. Time lag analyses further showed that higher progressive taxation predicted increasingly lower income inequality up to 5 years later. Data from the General Social Survey (1972–2014; N = 59,599) with U.S. residents (hereafter referred to as “Americans”) showed that during years with higher progressive taxation rates, less wealthy Americans—those in the lowest 40% of the income distribution—tended to be happier, whereas the richest 20% were not significantly less happy. Mediational analyses confirmed that the association of progressive taxation with the happiness of less wealthy Americans can be explained by lower income inequality in years with higher progressive taxation. A separate sample of Americans polled online (N = 373) correctly predicted the positive association between progressive taxation and the happiness of poorer Americans but incorrectly expected a strong negative association between progressive taxation and the happiness of richer Americans.

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