Lies and Evasions

AT LAST COUNT

“IN THIS WORLD,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “nothing is certain but death and taxes.”Yet in Dallam County, Texas, and Prince Georges County, Maryland, the only certainty appears to be death. These counties are among about 400 nationwide where rates of tax delinquency are four percent or greater (the national average is 2.2 percent). In Dallam County in 1983, the most recent year for which detailed data are available, almost 60 percent of all taxpayers who filed returns withheld money properly owed the government.

Tax-delinquent accounts have consistently been found to be disproportionately clustered in the South and West. Why? One reason, a government spokesman speculates, is that people in the South and in what used to be the nation’s western frontier are in spirit “a little less inclined to participate in the system.” Another reason, he suggests, may be that the rural South and West are home to people who are less likely than other Americans to work for businesses that make automatic payroll deductions. Many rural counties are also poor; some people there simply can’t pay

all the taxes that they owe.

Fortunately for the U.S. Treasury, the counties where tax delinquency is the greatest tend to be sparsely populated, and revenue loss is more limited than it otherwise would be. The greatest revenue loss comes from populous counties where

rates of tax delinquency are above the national average but moderately so. Fittingly, Washington, D.C., has a higher rate of tax delinquency than the nation’s ninetynine most populous counties.

On the whole, Americans have been getting less honest—2.5 percent less honest in 1983 than they were in 1966, according to an IRS study. Misinformation reported to the IRS about income, adjustments, deductions, and exemptions caused a loss of revenue to the government in 1983 of $86.3 billion.

LEGEND

Percentage of tax delinquencies by county

0 to 2.19 percent

2.20 to 4.99 percent

5 percent or more

Source: Internal Revenue Service

—Blayne Cutler