MSNBC's Matthews let Santorum's fantasy tax claims pass without challenge

On the July 27 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews affirmed the false claim by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) that the “average family” currently pays 27 percent of its income to the federal government -- an amount Santorum claimed has increased from 2 percent in 1955. While there are many ways to define the term “average family,” studies that attempt to measure the effective federal tax rates paid by typical families contradict both of Santorum's figures.

A March 1 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showed that the total effective federal tax rate for households in the middle income quintile averaged 14.4 percent -- not 27 percent -- in 2002, the most recent year for which CBO has examined such data. The study took into account federal income, payroll, and excise taxes, as well as federal taxes paid on interest, dividends, rents, and capital gains.

An alternative approach is to focus on a family of a specific size earning a median income, as the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution that provides “timely, accessible analysis and facts about tax policy,” did in an update of a 1998 study by the Department of the Treasury's Office of Tax Analysts. This study, which took into account only federal income and employee-paid Social Security and Medicare taxes, found that in 1955, a family of four earning the median income of all such families paid an average combined tax rate of 7.35 percent -- not 2 percent; this number rose to a peak of 18.44 percent in 1981 before falling back to 14.36 percent by 2001.

Santorum has made this false claim about taxation at least one other time, in a July 25 chat on the website of The Washington Post.

From the July 27 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

SANTORUM: And I talk about that, 50 years ago, the average American family paid 2 percent of their income into the federal government in taxes. Today, they pay 27 percent to the federal government in taxes.