Brackets: A Historical Perspective

108:3 Northwestern Law Review 925 (2014)

30 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2013 Last revised: 12 Jul 2023

See all articles by Tracey M. Roberts

Tracey M. Roberts

Samford University, Cumberland School of Law

Date Written: September 25, 2013


This Article surveys the history of the U.S. income tax system from 1913 to the present, examining changes in the structure of the graduated rates system over the past 100 years, using inflation-adjusted dollars. By connecting these changes to key events in the history of the United States, the article contextualizes modifications Congress has made to the income tax over time as well as the current debate surrounding several proposals for reform. First, the Article demonstrates that the rate structure has become more flat (with lower rates and fewer brackets than in the past), compressed (with less graduation, steeper jumps between brackets, and less penetration of the rate schedule into the income strata), and complex (with the proliferation of tax expenditures) over time. Second, the Article reveals that the structures that would result from several tax reform proposals being discussed in the popular media resemble historical rates and brackets. Because these proposals for tax reform have analogs in earlier versions of the income tax, the article argues that analysis of economic data from prior periods may help inform tax policy and identifies an agenda for future research.

Keywords: Income Tax, Tax, History, Flat Tax, Progressivity, Millionaire Surtax, Empirical Research

JEL Classification: H24, N42

Suggested Citation

Roberts, Tracey, Brackets: A Historical Perspective (September 25, 2013). 108:3 Northwestern Law Review 925 (2014), Available at SSRN:

Tracey Roberts (Contact Author)

Samford University, Cumberland School of Law ( email )

800 Lakeshore Drive
Birmingham, AL 35229
United States
(303) 818-8589 (Phone)


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