What Is a Tax Bracket?

A tax bracket refers to a range of incomes聽subject to a certain income tax rate. Tax brackets result in a progressive tax system, in which taxation progressively increases as an individual鈥檚 income grows: Low incomes fall into tax brackets with relatively low income tax rates, while higher earnings fall into brackets with higher rates.

Key Takeaways

  • There are currently seven federal tax brackets in the United States, with rates ranging from 10% to 37%.
  • The U.S. tax system is progressive, with lower brackets paying lower rates and higher brackets paying higher ones.
  • Unless your income lands you in the lowest tax bracket, you are charged at multiple rates as your income rises, rather than just at the rate of the bracket into which you fall.

Understanding Tax Brackets

In the U.S., the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses a progressive tax system, meaning taxpayers will pay the lowest rate of tax on the first level of taxable income in their bracket, a higher rate on the next level, and so on. Currently, there are seven federal tax brackets, each assigned a different rate, ranging from 10% to 37%, with the dollar ranges in each varying聽for single filers, married joint filers (and qualifying widow(er)s), married filing separate filers, and head of household filers, resulting in 28 effective tax brackets.

When determining which tax bracket to use, a taxpayer should first calculate their taxable income (earned and investment income minus adjustments and deductions).

Let鈥檚 take an example based on the rates for the tax year 2019. Single filers who have less than $9,700 taxable income are subject to a 10% income tax rate (the minimum bracket). Single filers who earn more than this amount have their first $9,700 in earnings taxed at 10%, but their earnings past that cutoff point and up to $39,475 are subjected to a 12% rate, the next bracket. Earnings between $39,475 and $84,200 are taxed at 22%, the third bracket.锘 And so on.

Tax brackets are adjusted each year for inflation, using the Consumer Price Index.

聽Single Taxable Income Tax Brackets and Rates, 2019

Rate Taxable Income Bracket Tax Owed


$0 to $9,700 10% of taxable income


$9,701 to $39,475 $970 plus 12% of the excess over $9,700


$39,476 to $84,200 $4,543 plus 22% of the excess over $39,475


$84,201 to $160,725 $14,382.50 plus 24% of the excess over $84,200


$160,726 to $204,100 $32,748.50 plus 32% of the excess over $160,725


$204,101 to $510,300 $46,638.50 plus 35% of the excess over $204,100


Over $510,300 $153,798.50 plus 37% of the excess over $510,300

Married Filing Jointly Taxable Income Tax Brackets and Rates, 2019

Rate Taxable Income Bracket Tax Owed


$0 to $19,400 10% of taxable income


$19,401 to $78,950 $1,940 plus 12% of the excess over $19,400


$78,951 to $168,400 $9,086 plus 22% of the excess over $78,950


$168,401 to $321,450 $28,765 plus 24% of the excess over $168,400


$321,451 to $408,200 $65,497 plus 32% of the excess over $321,450


$408,201 to $612,350 $93,257 plus 35% of the excess over $408,200


Over $612,350 $164,709.50 plus 37% of the excess over $612,350

As the tax brackets apply only to the portion of the income that reaches their respective thresholds, most taxpayers must look at several brackets when calculating the amount they must pay.

Here's how the numbers will look in 2020.

聽Single Taxable Income Tax Brackets and Rates, 2020

Rate Taxable Income Bracket Tax Owed


$0 to $9,875 10% of taxable income


$9,876-$40,125 $987.50 plus 12% of the excess over $9,875


$40,126-$85,525 $4,617.50 plus 22% of the excess over $40,125


$85,526-$163,300 $14,605.50 plus 24% of the excess over $85,525


$163,301-$207,350 $33,271.50 plus 32% of the excess over $163,300


$207,351-$518,400 $47,367.50 plus 35% of the excess over $207,350


Over $518,400  

$156,235 plus 37% of the excess over $518,400

Married Filing Jointly Taxable Income Tax Brackets and Rates, 2020

Rate Taxable Income Bracket Tax Owed


$0 to $19,750 10% of taxable income


$19,751-$80,250 1,975 plus 12% of the excess over $19,750


$80,251-$171,050 $9,235 plus 22% of the excess over $80,250



$29,211 plus 24% of the excess over $171,050



$326,601-$414,700 $66,543 plus 32% of the excess over $326,600


$414,701-$622,050 $94,735 plus 35% of the excess over $414,700


Over $622,050 $167,307.50 plus 37% of the excess over $622,050

Tax Rates vs. Tax Brackets

People often refer to their tax brackets and their tax rates as the same thing, but they鈥檙e not. A tax rate is a percentage at which income is taxed; each tax bracket has a different tax rate (10%, 12%, 22%, etc.),聽referred to as the marginal rate. However, most taxpayers鈥攁ll except those who fall squarely into the minimum bracket鈥攈ave income that is taxed progressively, so they鈥檙e actually subject to several different rates, beyond the nominal one of their tax bracket. Your tax bracket does not necessarily reflect how much you will pay in total taxes. The term for this is the effective tax rate. Here鈥檚 how it works.

Consider the following tax responsibility for a single filer with a taxable income of $50,000 in 2019:

  • The first $9,700 is taxed at 10%: $9,700 x 0.10 = $970
  • Then $9,701 to $39,475, or $29,774, is taxed at 12%: $29,774 x 0.12 = $3,572.88
  • Finally, the top $10,524 is taxed at 22%: $10,524 x 0.22 = $2,315.28

Add the taxes owed in each of the brackets and you get $970 + $3,572.88 + $2,315.28 = $6,858.16.

Result: This individual鈥檚 effective tax rate is approximately 14% of income.

Pros and Cons of Tax Brackets

Tax brackets鈥攁nd the progressive tax system they create鈥攃ontrast with a flat tax structure, in which all individuals are taxed at the same rate, regardless of their income levels.

  • Higher-income individuals are more able to pay income taxes and keep a good living standard.

  • Low-income individuals pay less, leaving them more to support themselves.

  • Tax deductions and credits give high-income individuals tax relief, while rewarding useful behavior, such as donating to charity.

  • Wealthy people end up paying a disproportionate amount of taxes.

  • Brackets make the wealthy focus on finding tax loopholes that result in many underpaying their taxes, depriving government of revenue.

  • Progressive taxation leads to reduced personal savings.


Proponents of tax brackets and progressive tax systems contend that individuals with high incomes are more able to pay income taxes while maintaining a relatively high standard of living, while low-income individuals鈥攚ho struggle to meet their basic needs鈥攕hould be subject to less taxation. They stress that it is only fair that wealthy taxpayers pay more in taxes than the poor and middle class, offsetting the inequality of income distribution. That makes the聽progressive taxation system 鈥減rogressive鈥 in both senses of the word: It rises in stages and is designed with help for lower-income taxpayers in mind. Taxes you pay on 401(k) withdrawals, for instance, are also based on tax brackets.

Supporters maintain that this system can generate higher revenues for governments and still be fair by letting taxpayers lower their tax bill through adjustments, such as tax deductions and/or tax credits for outlays such as charitable contributions. The higher income that taxpayers realize can then be funneled back into the economy. Furthermore, the use of tax brackets has an automatic stabilizing effect on an individual's after-tax income, as a decrease in funds is counteracted by a decrease in the tax rate, leaving the individual with a less substantial decrease.


Opponents of tax brackets and progressive tax schedules argue that everyone, regardless of income or economic status, is equal under the law and there should be no discrimination between rich and poor. They also point out that progressive taxation can lead to a substantial discrepancy between the amount of tax wealthy people pay and the amount of government representation they receive. Some even go on to point out that citizens get only one vote per person regardless of the personal or even national percentage of tax that they pay.

Opponents also claim that higher taxation at higher income levels can (and does) lead to the wealthy spending money to exploit tax law loopholes and find creative ways to shelter earnings and assets鈥攐ften with the result that they actually end up paying less in taxes than the less well-off, depriving the government of revenue. (American companies that relocate their headquarters abroad, for example, frequently do so to avoid U.S. corporate taxes.)

They also assert that the progressive system has historically led to reduced personal savings rates among taxpayers. After spiking to 12% in December 2012, the personal savings rate suddenly dropped to 5.8% by February 2013 and had risen to just 8.2% as of February 2020.

History of Federal Tax Brackets

Tax brackets have existed in the U.S. tax code since the inception of the very first income tax, when the Union government passed the Revenue Act of 1861 to help fund its war against the Confederacy.锘 A second revenue act in 1862 established the first two tax brackets: 3% for annual incomes from $600 to $10,000 and 5% on incomes above $10,000 (those were the days!).锘 The original four filing statuses were single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, and head of household, though rates were the same regardless of tax status.

In 1872 Congress rescinded the income tax.锘 It didn鈥檛 reappear until the 16th Amendment to the Constitution鈥攚hich established Congress鈥 right to levy a federal income tax鈥攚as ratified in1913. That same year Congress enacted a 1% income tax for individuals earning more than $3,000 a year and couples earning more than $4,000, with a graduated surtax of 1% to 7% on incomes from $20,000 and up.

Over the years the number of tax brackets has fluctuated. When the federal income tax began in 1913, there were seven tax brackets. In 1918 the number mushroomed to 78 brackets, ranging from 6% to 77%.锘 In 1944 the top rate hit 91%,锘 but it was brought back down to 70% by President Johnson.锘 President Reagan initially brought the top rate down to 50%.

Then, in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, brackets were simplified and the rates reduced so that in 1988 there were only two brackets: 15% and 28%.锘 This system lasted only until 1991聽when the third bracket of 31% was added.锘柯燬ince then additional brackets have been implemented, and we have come full circle and are back to seven brackets, a structure that was retained by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

State Tax Brackets

Some states have no income tax: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.聽New Hampshire and Tennessee only tax some dividends and interest income, with that practice set to expire in 2025 and 2022, respectively.

In 2020 nine states have a flat rate structure, with a single rate applying to a resident鈥檚 income:聽Colorado (4.63%), Illinois (4.95%), Indiana (3.23%), Kentucky (5.0%), Massachusetts (5.05%), Michigan (4.25%), North Carolina (5.25),聽Pennsylvania (3.07%), and Utah (4.95%).

In other states the number of tax brackets varies from three to as many as 9 (in Missouri and California) and even 12 (in Hawaii). The marginal tax rates in these brackets also vary considerably. California has the highest, maxing out at 12.3%.

State income tax regulations may or may not mirror federal rules. For example, some states allow residents to use the federal personal exemption and standard deduction amounts for figuring state income tax, while others have their own exemption and standard deduction amounts.

How to Find Your Tax Bracket

There are numerous online sources to find your specific federal income tax bracket. The IRS makes available a variety of information, including annual tax tables that provide highly detailed tax information鈥揵ased filing statuses in increments of $50 of taxable income up to $100,000.

Other websites provide tax bracket calculators that do the math for you, as long as you know your filing status and taxable income.锘 Your tax bracket can shift from year to year, depending on inflation adjustments and changes in your income and status, so it鈥檚 worth checking on an annual basis.