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The first federal income tax was imposed by Congress in 1862, to finance the Union's waging of the Civil War. It levied a 3% tax on incomes above $600, rising to 5% for incomes above $10,000. Rates were raised in 1864. The Civil War income tax was repealed in 1872, but a new income tax was enacted in the late 1800s. However, the Supreme Court struck down the income tax in 1895. It ruled that the portion of the income tax that applied to income on property was a direct tax that, under the US Constitution, could not be levied without apportioning the tax by population.
In 1913, however, the states ratified the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which made possible modern income taxes. That same year, the first Form 1040 appeared after Congress levied a 1% tax on net personal incomes above $3,000 with a 6% surtax on incomes of more than $500,000. As the nation sought greater revenue to finance the World War I effort, the top rate of the income tax rose to 77% in 1918. It dropped sharply in the post-war years, down to 24% in 1929, and rose again during the Depression. During World War II, Congress introduced payroll withholding and quarterly tax payments.
At first the income tax was incrementally expanded by the U.S. Congress, and then inflation automatically raised most persons into tax brackets formerly reserved for the wealthy. Income tax now applies to almost 2/3 of the population. The lowest earning workers ($20,000 in 2000) pay no income taxes as a group and actually get a small subsidy from the federal government because of child credits and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Notably, however, some lower income individuals pay a proportionately lower share of payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare than do some higher income individuals in terms of the effective tax rate. All income earned up to a point, adjusted annually for inflation ($94,200 for the year 2006) is taxed at 7.65% on the employee with an addition 7.65% payment incurred by the employer. The annual limitation amount is sometimes called the "Social Security tax wage base amount." Above the annual limit amount, only the 1.45% Medicare tax is imposed. In terms of the effective rate, this means that a worker earning $20,000 for 2006 pays at a 7.65% effective rate while a worker earning $200,000 pays at an effective rate of about 4.37%.
Self employed people pay the entire 15.3%. Above these payroll taxes presumably pay into the Social Security Trust Fund and Medicare Trust Funds that they will then draw on when the worker grows older.
The federal government is now financed primarily by personal and corporate income taxes. While it was originally funded via tariffs upon imported goods, tariffs now represent only a minor portion of federal revenues. There are also non-tax fees to recompense agencies for services or to fill specific trust funds such as the fee placed upon airline tickets for airport expansion and air traffic control. Often the receipts intended to be placed in "trust" funds are used for other purposes, with the government posting an IOU ('I owe you') in the form of a federal bond or other accounting instrument, then spending the money on unrelated current expenditures.
The federal government collects several specific taxes in addition to the general income tax. Social Security and Medicare are large social support programs which are funded by taxes on personal earned income. Estate taxes are levied on inheritance. Net long-term capital gains, including certain types of qualified dividend income, are taxed preferentially.
Federal excise taxes are applied to specific items such as motor fuels, tires, telephone usage, tobacco products, and alcoholic beverages. Excise taxes are often, but not always, allocated to special funds related to the object or activity taxed.