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A regressive tax is a tax imposed in such a manner that the tax rate decreases as the amount subject to taxation increases. "Regressive" describes a distribution effect on income or expenditure, referring to the way the rate progresses from high to low, so that the average tax rate exceeds the marginal tax rate.
The regressivity of a particular tax can also factor the propensity of the taxpayers to engage in the taxed activity relative to their resources (the demographics of the tax base). In other words, if the activity being taxed is more likely to be carried out by the poor and less likely to be carried out by the rich, the tax may be considered regressive. To measure the effect, the income elasticity of the good being taxed as well as the income effect on consumption must be considered. The measure can be applied to individual taxes or to a tax system as a whole; a year, multi-year, or lifetime.
The opposite of a regressive tax is a progressive tax, in which the average tax rate increases as the amount subject to taxation rises. In between is a flat or proportional tax, where the tax rate is fixed as the amount subject to taxation increases.
In 2005, the Swiss canton of Obwalden implemented a regressive taxation system. It was struck down by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland in 2007, because it ran counter to the Swiss Federal Constitution.
Regressive taxes are implemented in the United States primarily through sales taxes, excise taxes, and payroll taxes. Sales taxes are imposed by state and local governments on goods and services, impacting lower-income individuals more as they spend a larger portion of their income on necessities subject to these taxes. Excise taxes, such as those on gasoline, tobacco, and alcohol, also tend to affect lower-income households disproportionately because they consume a higher percentage of their income on these taxed items. Additionally, the Social Security payroll tax is regressive up to a certain income threshold, as it applies to all workers but only taxes a portion of their earnings, exempting higher-income earners beyond that threshold. These regressive tax mechanisms result in lower-income individuals paying a larger share of their income in taxes compared to higher-income individuals, contributing to income inequality concerns in the U.S.