The federal tax bite for middle-income families has not been growing in recent years. Instead, it has remained steady - at just under 20 percent - for two decades, a report released by the center on Tuesday indicates. State and local taxes typically take another 6 percent, the center's researchers said, for a combined level of about 26 percent, significantly below the level cited by Lott.
Congressional Budget Office and Treasury analyses place the typical burden at between 26 percent and 30 percent, depending on varying definitions of income and state and local taxes.
Lott, who could not be reached for comment, was relying for his numbers on an analysis produced last November by the Tax Foundation, which advocates lowering the nation's tax burden. It concluded that the median combined federal, state and local tax burden for two-earner families had risen to 38.2 percent in 1997 from 37.3 percent in 1996.
Analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities believe that assessment is not only inaccurate but also dangerous, because it encourages people to fear government and taxes.
``If you have people believing that the government takes nearly 40 percent of their pay, it leads some of them to conclude that radical reform of the federal tax system and steep reductions in the size of government may be required to lower tax burdens,'' said Iris J. Lav, author of the center's study.
Not surprisingly, the Tax Foundation's communications director, Stephen Gold, strongly disagrees with Lav's analysis. He said the numbers differ because of differences in methodology and philosophy.
The foundation's analysts defined ``typical'' as the median (midpoint) income for families with two workers, while the center used the middle 20 percent of families. Also, the foundation allocated portions of corporate income taxes to all taxpayers while the center made that adjustment only for corporate shareholders. And the foundation counted state employees' retirement contributions as taxes while the center did not.
``The bottom line is that, together, we're all paying more taxes, and that's something we ought to worry about,'' Gold said. ``The Tax Foundation is worried about that trend, while the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a different agenda.''
But Lav says that view is misleading.
``The rich are paying more because they make more. That's the way the system was designed,'' she said. Most alternatives suggested thus far would be less fair to most Americans, she added, because they would lower the burden of the rich at the expense of the middle class.
Lav said that the median income for families with two workers used in the Tax Foundation's calculations was $52,416, or 48 percent higher than the median income for all households - $35,492. Thus, she said, the Tax Foundation's analysis was flawed because it was measuring the tax burden of taxpayers who are far richer than average.