The marginal tax rate is the rate of tax income earners incur on each additional dollar of income. As the marginal tax rate increases, the taxpayer ends up with less money per dollar earned than he or she had retained on previously earned dollars. Tax systems employing marginal tax rates apply different tax rates to different levels of income; as income rises, it is taxed at a higher rate. It is important to note, however, the income is not all taxed at one rate but many rates as it moves across the marginal tax rate schedule.

The goal of the marginal rate is to place the burden of supporting the government on the shoulders of taxpayers more financially able to do so, versus spreading the burden evenly to the detriment of taxpayers not able to afford anymore, while attempting to balance the problems of a straight progressive rate.

Flat Tax System

The other tax system used in modern economics is flat taxes. With flat taxes, the rate does not change, regardless of the individual's income. No matter how much a person makes, he or she will be taxed at the same percentage. Supporters of flat taxes argue that this system is fair because it taxes all individuals and businesses at the same rate, rather than taking into account the levels of their income. Flat tax systems usually do not allow deductions. This form of taxation is often associated with countries that have a rising economy, but there is little evidence to support flat tax as the sole cause of growth.

Marginal Tax Rate Example

The above is a simple example of a marginal tax rate schedule. It illustrates the rate at which various levels of income are taxed. As income rises, each dollar of income above the previous level is taxed at a higher rate. If a taxpayer earns more money and moves into a higher income level, marginal tax rates can significantly diminish the benefit of the additional income because it will be taxed at a higher rate. As a result, some believe marginal tax rates are harmful to the economy because they discourage people from working harder to earn more money. Although earning more money may increase the income tax rate, a larger income will still be taxed at more than one level. The chart below illustrates how the marginal tax rate works.

As the graph shows, it may be best to think of the example in terms of income growing from $0 to $120,000. As it moves toward $120,000, it incurs different tax rates. Therefore, income between $0 and $20,000 is taxed at 10%, so the tax owed is $2,000 ($20.000 x 10%). Then income moves into a new marginal tax rate (20%). As it grows above $20,000, the $120,000 income earner owes $4,000 in tax ($20,000 x 20%) for this portion of income in addition to the $2,000 of tax incurred on the first $20,000. This is done at each income level up to the taxpayer's total income, in this case, $120,000. Based on the tax rate schedule above, the $120,000 income earner pays a total of $38,000 in taxes based on the marginal tax rate system.

This example also illustrates not all of this taxpayer's income is taxed at the same rate. Therefore, only $2,000 of tax is owed at the lowest income level, while $6,000 of tax is incurred at the third level on the same amount of money ($20,000). Many people are confused by marginal tax rates, believing the rate at which they will be taxed is a flat rate based on the income level into which they fall. According to this incorrect assumption, a $120,000 income would be taxed at a 50% rate, making the amount of tax owed $60,000.