Making Government Work

Could a National Sales Tax Ease American Inequality?

February 20, 2014
Could a National Sales Tax Ease American Inequality?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A professor from Michigan State University lays out the case.

The U.S. has one of the highest levels of income inequality among the world’s industrialized nations. The imbalance between rich and the poor is a popular political topic — President Barack Obama even focused his State of the Union address on the issue. Michigan State University law professor Reuven S. Avi-Yonah has an idea that he can help: he wants to implement a national sales tax.

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Sure, this idea is probably at the very top of the list for politically unpopular topics, but don’t write Avi-Yonah off just yet. By using the Gini Coefficient, a measure of statistical dispersion that represents income distribution, Avi-Yonah discovered that income inequality in the U.S. is on the rise while social mobility is on the decline, making it one of the most unequal developed economies, while countries like Germany and Japan are more balanced. By comparing the U.S. to these countries, he found a clear difference: the presence of a national sales tax — or, more specifically, a value added tax (VAT). While states levy a sales tax on consumers who purchase goods and services, funds from a national sales tax could go even further.  “One key to reducing inequality in the U.S. is to bolster the social safety net,” Avi-Yonah writes in his report.

But why a national sales tax over other forms of funding? For one, these types of taxes are used in more than 150 countries and have a demonstrated ability to raise revenues. VATs are not income taxes, which are easy for some Americans to avoid and can discourage work. Sales taxes are also paid by all members of society — the old and young, rich and poor. Plus, a sales tax is cheaper to administer than income taxes. Sound like a no-brainer? Well, try getting any new tax past congress.

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