Keeping Track: A tax-day look at how we square our debts with Uncle Sam

A majority of taxpayers expect refunds. Online filing continues its rise. The wealthy pay the most.

Unless taxpayers have filed for an extension, today is the last day to send 2001 federal tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS expects to receive 132 million returns this year. Some 87 million will be filed on paper, stamped, and mailed. The rest will come in electronically, by either phone or computer (see chart, below). So far, computer filing has increased by 17 percent from a year ago. Phone filing is down 6.2 percent.

The vast majority of Americans who file expect to receive refunds. Of the 72.3 million returns processed through April 6, 64.6 million were approved for a refund. Already $126.3 billion in refunds have been issued, up 17.6 percent from a year ago. That amounts to a hefty interest-free loan to Uncle Sam, according to some tax experts. (The average refund: $1,954.)

As for what Americans plan to do with their refunds, nearly two-thirds plan to spend it, according to a poll released by the Cambridge Consumer Credit Index (see chart, left).

If history is any indicator, one thing is for certain: when all the tax dollars are added up and refunds distributed, the federal government can thank the wealthy for paying most of its bills.

Just 5 percent of taxpayers paid more than 55 percent of all income taxes in 1999, the latest year for IRS statistics.

The bottom half of all taxpayers forked over just 4 percent of the total $877 billion collected from individuals that year.

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