"There is a common misconception that high-income Americans are not paying much in taxes compared to what they used to. Proponents of this view often point to the 1950s, when the top federal income tax rate was 91 percent for most of the decade. However, despite these high marginal rates, the top 1 percent of taxpayers in the 1950s only paid about 42 percent of their income in taxes. As a result, the tax burden on high-income households today is only slightly lower than what these households faced in the 1950s."
"There are a few reasons for the discrepancy between the 91 percent top marginal income tax rate and the 16.9 percent effective income tax rate of the 1950s.
The 91 percent bracket of 1950 only applied to households with income over $200,000 (or about $2 million in today’s dollars). Only a small number of taxpayers would have had enough income to fall into the top bracket – fewer than 10,000 households, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. Many households in the top 1 percent in the 1950s probably did not fall into the 91 percent bracket to begin with.
Even among households that did fall into the 91 percent bracket, the majority of their income was not necessarily subject to that top bracket. After all, the 91 percent bracket only applied to income above $200,000, not to every single dollar earned by households.
Finally, it is very likely that the existence of a 91 percent bracket led to significant tax avoidance and lower reported income. There are many studies that show that, as marginal tax rates rise, income reported by taxpayers goes down. As a result, the existence of the 91 percent bracket did not necessarily lead to significantly higher revenue collections from the top 1 percent.
All in all, the idea that high-income Americans in the 1950s paid much more of their income in taxes should be abandoned. The top 1 percent of Americans today do not face an unusually low tax burden, by historical standards."