Tax Analysts Blog

When the IRS Used to Sing for its Supper

Posted on Mar 27, 2012

Most people don't break into song when they think about taxes. (More likely, they start cursing under their breath.) But once upon a time, the IRS tried to sing taxpayers into compliance.

Last week, NPR's Planet Money did a great podcast on the history of the income tax. (Self-promotion alert: I was interviewed for the piece.) The segment explores, among other things, the dramatic expansion of the income tax during World War II, when lawmakers transformed the levy from a "class tax" on the rich to a "mass tax" on the middle class. Americans filed just 7.4 million returns in 1940, but by 1945 that number had risen to 42.6 million.

On one level, expanding the income tax was easy -- Congress just lowered exemptions (while, incidentally, also raising rates dramatically). But once within the taxman's grasp, middle class Americans had to take the initiative and file their own returns. And this was no small thing. Federal officials worried that neophyte taxpayers would get confused -- or simply fail to file entirely.

To cope with this problem, the Treasury Department began a huge public relations campaign, replete with posters, cartoons, and comic strips. One of the more interesting artifacts from this PR campaign was a song written for the Treasury Department by Irving Berlin, "I Paid My Income Tax Today." And you can listen to it here.

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