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The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax (pronounced /ˈfаɪkə/) is a United States payroll (or employment) tax[1] imposed by the federal government on both employees and employers to fund Social Security and Medicare[2] —federal programs that provide benefits for retirees, the disabled, and children of deceased workers. Social Security benefits include old-age, survivors, and disability insurance (OASDI); Medicare provides hospital insurance benefits. The amount that one pays in payroll taxes throughout one's working career is indirectly tied to the social security benefits annuity that one receives as a retiree. This has led some to claim that the payroll tax is not a tax because its collection is tied to a benefit.[3] The United States Supreme Court decided in Flemming v. Nestor (1960) that no one has an accrued property right to benefits from Social Security.

The Federal Insurance Contributions Act is currently codified at Title 26, Subtitle C, Chapter 21 of the United States Code.[4]


How the tax is calculated



The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states that three-fourths of taxpayers pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes.[5] The FICA tax is considered a regressive tax on income (with no standard deduction or personal exemption deduction) and is imposed (for the year 2009) only on the first $106,800 of gross wages. The tax is not imposed on investment income (such as interest and dividends).

"Regular" employees (most wage-earners)

For 2008, the employee's share of the Social Security portion of the tax is 6.2% of gross compensation up to a limit of $102,000 of compensation (resulting in a maximum of $6,324.00 in tax). For 2009, the employee's share is 6.2% of gross compensation up to a limit of $106,800 of compensation (resulting in a maximum tax of $6,621.60).[6] This limit, known as the Social Security Wage Base, goes up each year based on average national wages and, in general, at a faster rate than the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). The employee's share of the Medicare portion is 1.45% of wages with no limit. The employer is also liable for separate 6.2% and 1.45% Social Security and Medicare taxes, respectively, making the total Social Security tax 12.4% and the total Medicare tax 2.9% of wages. (Self-employed people are responsible for the entire FICA percentage of 15.3% (= 12.4% + 2.9%), since they are both the employer and the employed; however, see the section on self-employed people for more details.)

If a worker starts a new job halfway through the year and has already earned the wage base limit for Social Security, the new employer is not allowed to stop withholding it until the wage base limit has been earned with them. There are some limited cases, such as a successor-predecessor transfer, in which the payments that have already been withheld can be counted toward the year-to-date total.

If a worker has overpaid toward Social Security by having more than one job or by having switched jobs during the year, that worker can file to have that overpayment counted as tax paid when they file their Federal income tax return. If the taxpayer is due a refund, then the FICA overpayment becomes part or all of the refund.

Self-employed people

A tax similar to the FICA tax is imposed on the earnings of self-employed individuals, such as independent contractors and members of a partnership. This tax is imposed not by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act but instead by the Self-Employment Contributions Act of 1954, which is codified as Chapter 2 of Subtitle A of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. § 1401 through 26 U.S.C. § 1403 (the "SE Tax Act"). Under the SE Tax Act, self-employed people are responsible for the entire percentage of 15.3% (= 12.4% [Soc. Sec.] + 2.9% [Medicare]); however, the 15.3% multiplier is applied to 92.35% of the business's net earnings from self-employment, rather than 100% of the gross earnings; the difference, 7.65%, is half of the 15.3%, and makes the calculation fair in comparison to that of regular (non-self-employed) employees. It does this by adjusting for the fact that employees' 7.65% share of their SE tax is multiplied against a number (their gross income) that does not include the putative "employer's half" of the self-employment tax. In other words, it makes the calculation fair because employees don't get taxed on their employers' contribution of the second half of FICA, therefore self-employed people shouldn't get taxed on the second half of the self-employment tax. Similarly, self-employed people also deduct half of their self-employment tax (schedule SE) from their gross income on the way to arriving at their adjusted gross income (AGI). This levels the amount paid by self-employed persons in comparison to regular employees, who don't pay general income tax on their employers' contribution of the second half of FICA, just as they didn't pay FICA tax on it either.[7][8]

These calculations are made on Schedule SE: Self-Employment Tax, although that is not readily apparent to novice self-employed taxpayers, owing to the schedule's rather opaque name, which makes it sound like it is part of the general federal income tax. Some taxpayers have complained that Schedule SE's title should be changed to something such as "Self-Employment FICA Tax", so that its separateness from the general income tax is apparent,[9], perhaps not realizing that the SE tax is not imposed by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) at all, and that neither SE taxes nor FICA taxes are "income taxes" imposed under Chapter 1 of the Internal Revenue Code.

Exemption for certain full-time students

A special case in FICA regulations includes exemptions for student workers. Students enrolled at least half-time in a university and working part-time for the same university are exempted from FICA payroll taxes, so long as their relationship with the university is primarily an educational one.[10]


Prior to the Great Depression, the following presented difficulties for working-class Americans:

  • The U.S. had no federal-government-mandated retirement savings; consequently, for those people who had not voluntarily saved money throughout their working lives, the end of their work careers was the end of all income.
  • Similarly, the U.S. had no federal-government-mandated disability income insurance to provide for citizens disabled by injuries (of any kind—work-related or non-work-related); consequently, for most people, a disabling injury meant no more income (since most people have little to no income except earned income from work).
  • In addition, there was no federal-government-mandated disability income insurance to provide for people unable to ever work during their lives, such as anyone born with severe mental retardation.
  • Further, the U.S. had no federal-government-mandated health insurance for the elderly; consequently, for many people, the end of their work careers was the end of their ability to pay for medical care.
  • Finally, the U.S. had no federal-government-mandated health insurance for all those who are not elderly; consequently, many people, especially those with pre-existing conditions, have no ability to pay for medical care.

In the 1930s, the New Deal introduced Social Security to rectify the first three problems (retirement, injury-induced disability, or congenital disability). It introduced the FICA tax as the means to pay for Social Security.

In the 1960s, Medicare was introduced to rectify the fourth problem (health care for the elderly). The FICA tax was increased in order to pay for this expense.

The fifth item is still not solved, but it is being debated in Washington in 2009 and 2010.


Social Security regressivity debate

The Social Security component of the FICA tax has been called regressive, meaning the effective tax rate regresses (decreases) as income increases.[11] The Social Security component is actually a flat tax for wage levels under the Social Security Wage Base (see "Regular" employees above). But since no tax is owed on wages above the Wage Base limit, the tax rate effectively declines as wages increase beyond that limit. In other words, for wage levels above the limit, the absolute dollar amount of tax owed remains constant; since this number (the numerator) remains constant while the wage level (the denominator) increases, the effective tax rate steadily decreases as wage levels increase beyond the Wage Base limit.

FICA is also not collected on unearned income, including interest on savings deposits, stock dividends, and capital gains such as profits from the sale of stock or real estate. The proportion of total income which is exempt from FICA as "unearned income" tends to rise with higher income brackets.

Some argue that since Social Security benefits are eventually returned to taxpayers, with interest, in the form of Social Security benefits, the regressiveness of the tax is effectively negated—i.e., the taxpayer gets back what he or she put into the Social Security system. Others, including the Congressional Budget Office, argue that the Social Security system as a whole is progressive-- i.e., individuals with lower lifetime average wages receive a larger benefit (as a percentage of their lifetime average wage income) than do individuals with higher lifetime average wages.[12] [13]

See also


  1. ^ The FICA tax is imposed under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, which is codified as 26 U.S.C. ch.21
  2. ^ Sullivan, Arthur; Steven M. Sheffrin (2003). Economics: Principles in action. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458: Pearson Prentice Hall. pp. 367. ISBN 0-13-063085-3.  
  3. ^ Kevin A. Hassett, March 29, 2005, "Is the Payroll Tax a Tax?" National Review Online, at [1].
  4. ^ CHAPTER 21—Federal Insurance Contributions Act from the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School
  5. ^ Studies Shed New Light on Effects of Administration's Tax Cuts by David Kamin and Isaac Shapiro, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Revised September 13, 2004
  6. ^ U.S. Social Security Administration, at [2].
  7. ^ I am self-employed. How do I pay Social Security tax?. Social Security Administration. Retrieved on April 28, 2007.
  8. ^ Self-Employment Tax. Internal Revenue Service. Retrieved on April 28, 2007.
  9. ^ A discussion in which self-employed people helped each other make sense of the tax universe
  10. ^ (pg 5)
  11. ^ Social Security Snares & Delusions by Irwin Stelzer, The Weekly Standard. Retrieved July 23, 2008
  12. ^ Is Social Security Progressive? by the Congressional Budget Office, retrieved July 23, 2008
  13. ^ Top Ten Facts on Social Security's 70th Anniversary by Jason Furman, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved July 23, 2008

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