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Joe Biden
stated on September 27, 2020 in a campaign ad:
The typical elementary school teacher pays $7,239 in federal income taxes, and firefighters pay $5,328, while Donald Trump paid $750.
true half-true
Joe Biden waves as he speaks with International Association of Firefighters in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (AP) Joe Biden waves as he speaks with International Association of Firefighters in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (AP)

Joe Biden waves as he speaks with International Association of Firefighters in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (AP)

Noah Y. Kim
By Noah Y. Kim September 29, 2020

Biden ad compares Trump’s taxes with nurses, firefighters

If Your Time is short

• According to tax policy experts, the Biden campaign used incomplete data while calculating the average income tax payments for various professions in its latest attack ad. 

• The experts said that the thrust of the ad is accurate: Most middle-income Americans paid more in federal income taxes than President Trump reportedly paid in 2017.

Joe Biden’s campaign seized on a report that Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and in 2017.

Hours after the New York Times broke its story, based on a review of two decades’ worth of the president’s tax returns, the Biden campaign posted a 30-second ad comparing Trump’s reported tax bill with the taxes paid by certain categories of essential workers.

In the ad, a series of faces appear on screen as text cites the "typical income tax" of an elementary school teacher ($7,239), a firefighter ($5,238), a construction manager ($16,447), and a registered nurse ($10,216). 

Finally, the ad shows footage of Donald Trump exiting Air Force One, with the text: "Federal income taxes paid: Donald Trump, $750."

The $750 figure in the ad is based on the Times’ reporting on Trump’s 2017 return. We haven’t seen Trump’s tax returns ourselves, since he hasn’t released them to the public. (He’s the only major-party presidential nominee in modern times not to do so.) The Times said it obtained the tax returns from someone who had lawful access to them, but would not publish them in order to protect its source’s identity.

A lawyer for the Trump Organization, the umbrella group for the president’s private business interests, challenged the Times’ reporting, writing in a statement that "over the past decade, President Trump has paid tens of millions of dollars in personal taxes to the federal government, including paying millions in personal taxes since announcing his candidacy in 2015." 

The Times noted that the attorney’s statement appeared to conflate income taxes with other federal taxes such as Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the company did not furnish any documents to substantiate its claim.

As for the "typical income tax" comparison for other workers, the Biden ad didn’t cite a specific source. The fine print on the ad says only that this information was based on "2019 data," but doesn’t go into detail. So we were curious about where the campaign got these numbers.

It turns out the tax amounts cited in the ad aren’t sourced from a federal tax agency. Rather, to calculate the typical income taxes for various professions, the Biden campaign took the annual mean wages of those professions as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and then used H&R Block’s tax calculator to estimate an income tax bill. 

Whether that bill qualifies as "typical" is not clear. The calculations used in the ad were based on an estimate of what a 40-year-old single person (not head of household) would owe.

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Elaine Maag, principal research associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, noted that various factors — whether someone is single or married, how many children they have, and whether they took standard or itemized deductions — affect the income taxes a person pays. Single people without children, who don’t qualify for tax credits and exemptions for children and dependents, will generally pay more in federal taxes than married couples or families with children.

In 2016, middle-income households making about $60,000 a year paid $2,200 in federal income taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan governmental agency. That’s far less than the amounts cited for any of the professions in the Biden ad.

Since the Biden campaign didn’t take these variations into account when making its calculation, the income taxes it cites in the ad are not so much "typical" as they are guesses for a certain segment of taxpayers in those professions. 

Mark Mazur, former assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy and director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said that the Biden campaign’s calculations "get you in the general ballpark" of the real income tax average by profession, but that a more precise measure would also have taken household makeup into account. 

It would be more accurate to say that the Biden campaign calculated the tax of "a 40-year-old single person, whose only income comes from his job," he said in an interview. 

In addition, Mazur noted that the Biden campaign used a 2019 tax calculator rather than a tax calculator for 2016 or 2017, the years for which Trump reportedly paid $750. 

Despite the holes in the comparison, tax experts agreed that the general thrust of the ad is accurate based on the Times’ reporting. 

"Most Americans are paying way more than $750," said Mazur. 

According to Vox, a single adult with no children and making as little as $17,900 in 2017 would have paid $750 in income tax. 

Our ruling

A Biden ad compared the amount of federal income tax Trump reportedly paid in 2017 with the "typical income tax" paid by categories of essential workers. 

According to tax policy experts, the Biden campaign used incomplete data to arrive at the amounts for the "typical income tax" paid by essential workers. The figures were based on tax estimates for single taxpayers with no children or dependents, or other sources of taxable income, and it didn’t account for workers in other filing categories. But the experts said the general thrust of the ad is accurate: Most Americans paid far more than $750 in federal income taxes. 

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate this ad Half True.

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More by Noah Y. Kim

Biden ad compares Trump’s taxes with nurses, firefighters

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