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Is the Gasoline Tax Regressive?

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  • James M. Poterba

Abstract

Claims of the regressivity of gasoline taxes typically rely on annual surveys of consumer income and expenditures which show that gasoline expenditures are a larger fraction of income for very low income households than for middle or high-income households. This paper argues that annual expenditure provides a more reliable indicator of household well-being than annual income. It uses data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey to reassess the claim that gasoline taxes are regressive by computing the share of total expenditures which high-spending and low-spending households devote to retail gasoline purchases. This alternative approach shows that low?expenditure households devote a smaller share of their budget to gasoline than do their counterparts in the middle of the expenditure distribution. Although households in the top five percent of the total spending distribution spend less on gasoline than those who are less well-off, the share of expenditure devoted to gasoline is much more stable across the population than the ratio of gasoline outlays to current income. The gasoline tax thus appears far less regressive than conventional analyses suggest.

Suggested Citation

  • James M. Poterba, 1991. "Is the Gasoline Tax Regressive?," NBER Working Papers 3578, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:3578
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    1. Poterba, James M, 1989. "Lifetime Incidence and the Distributional Burden of Excise Taxes," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(2), pages 325-330, May.
    2. Carol A. Dahl, 1986. "Gasoline Demand Survey," The Energy Journal, International Association for Energy Economics, vol. 0(Number 1), pages 67-82.
    3. James A. Kahn, 1986. "Gasoline Prices and the Used Automobile Market: A Rational Expectations Asset Price Approach," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 101(2), pages 323-339.
    4. Cordes, Joseph J. & Nicholson, Eric & Sammartino, Frank, 1990. "Raising Revenue by Taxing Activities With Social Costs," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 43(3), pages 343-356, September.
    5. David L. Greene, 1990. "CAFE OR PRICE?: An Analysis of the Effects of Federal Fuel Economy Regulations and Gasoline Price on New Car MPG, 1978-89," The Energy Journal, International Association for Energy Economics, vol. 0(Number 3), pages 37-58.
    6. Davies, James B & St-Hilaire, France & Whalley, John, 1984. "Some Calculations of Lifetime Tax Incidence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(4), pages 633-649, September.
    7. Cordes, Joseph J. & Nicholson, Eric & Sammartino, Frank, 1990. "Raising Revenue by Taxing Activities with Social Costs," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 43(3), pages 343-56, September.
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