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100 Aussies: five charts on who earns, pays and owns

Each year, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) publishes a snapshot of the 14.7 million individuals who lodge tax returns. Many returns are not lodged on time, so the latest data is for FY2019, but it reveals some surprises. The ATO also summarises some of the demographics of taxpayers (and non-taxpayers).

We are heading into a period of opening up the economy after COVID, with the need to repair the budget, an election looming by May 2022, the threat of inflation and a withdrawal of central bank stimulus. Any policy steps should recognise who pays the bills and who owns the assets.

For every 100 Australians lodging returns:

  • 10 are from Generation Z (born from 1996 to 2009)
  • 35 are from Generation Y (born from 1980 to 1995)
  • 31 are from Generation X (born from 1965 to 1979)
  • 19 are from Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964)
  • 4 are from the Silent Generation (1945 or earlier).

So over 75% of returns are lodged by people younger than Baby Boomers. Of the 100 people, 80 received a refund, 13 owed tax and 7 were perfectly balanced. Only 5 declared a capital gain, while 15 earned rental income (9 declared a net rental loss, 6 a net rental profit).

Let’s look at five big pictures on who we are.

1. Who pays tax?

Every decision on tax rates and welfare involves a trade-off which requires wealthy people to support poor people. That’s part of a fair society and a progressive tax system. At a high level, those who have look after those who have not.

There are infinite nuances. What about people who are able to work but choose not to? Should they be supported? That is why Centrelink has rules that some welfare recipients need to demonstrate they have tried to find employment.

The data below shows nearly 40% of individuals pay only 2% of personal income taxes. Many of these would also receive welfare so many people make no net contribution to government revenue (ignoring other taxes such as GST).

At the other end of the scale, 3.5% of people pay nearly one-third of personal taxes, and another 15.6% pay 36%. That means less than 20% of people pay two-thirds of personal income tax.

That’s our system, but policy and society need to recognise that, as it should be, high-income earners provide the services for low-income earners.

The ATO provides a further breakdown by ranking the 100 people by their taxable incomes:

  • the top 3 paid 29% of all net tax
  • the next 6 paid 19% of all net tax
  • the next 31 paid 40% of all net tax
  • the next 35 paid 12% of all net tax
  • the final 25 didn't pay any tax.

2. Investment properties

Let’s turn to assets, with most household wealth held in residential property, soon to top $10 trillion after the recent price surge compared with about $3.2 trillion in superannuation.

Over 2.2 million Australians own investment property. That’s a lot of people enjoying the current housing boom (in addition to owners of Principal Places of Residence). Over 20,000 own six or more properties and it’s party time funded by low interest rates.

Of the 2.2 million, about 60% or 1.3 million claim a net loss, which can be charged against other personal income.

In total, the gross rental income of almost $50 billion (thank you, renters!) is offset by a slightly larger amount of capital works deductions and other rental deductions (mainly mortgage interest) to produce a net loss for the 2.2 million people overall.

It’s thoughtful of tax policy to allow the loss to be charged immediately against income rather than the treatment of business losses which must be carried forward and charged against future profit.

3. Taxable incomes

For FY19, the average taxable income was $62,549. As this number is inflated by some very high earners, a more representative number is the median (as many people above the number as below) of $47,492.

This number is worthy of a moment’s reflection. Half of Australians earn less than $48,000 a year. While this number includes many who are asset rich/cash poor (retirees, superannuants, owners of valuable properties on age pensions, etc), there are millions not earning the big bucks who are renting and not participating in surging property and stock markets.

4. Average superannuation balances by age

Most people do not have much in superannuation, with the median stated at less than $50,000 (and women $45,000), as shown above.

This disguises balances by age. Obviously, older people have more super. Most have been in the system longer, have benefitted from compounding and good market returns, earn more than younger people with more opportunities to contribute extra. But even for people aged 65 and over, average superannuation balances of less than $200,000 will only finance a decent retirement if there are other assets such as owning a home and investments outside super.

5. SMSFs

Turning to another ATO report, the SMSF statistics for June 2021, reveals there are almost 600,000 SMSFs with over 1.1 million members holding assets of $822 billion. The top two asset types are direct holdings of listed shares (28% of total SMSF assets) and cash and term deposits (18%). In addition:

  • 86% of SMSF members are 45 years or older
  • the average assets per SMSF member were $696,000
  • the average assets per SMSF were $1.3 million
  • member contributions into SMSFs were $12.6 billion
  • employer contributions into SMSFs were $5.4 billion

Although SMSF members are usually older, this does not mean they are high income earners. In fact, the chart below shows that only 18.5% have income over $100,000 to less than $200,000, with 8.6% over $200,000. That leaves nearly three-quarters of SMSF members earning less than $100,000, and a quarter less than $20,000.

The main reason is not that younger people on lower salaries represent a high proportion of SMSF members. Rather, super funds are legal entities and tax is paid within the fund rather than being passed into an individual's taxable income. A person may operate a $10 million SMSF but have little in personal income.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks.


November 15, 2021

Why not abolish tax altogether and extract enough from the money supply to balance govt expenditure sufficient to maintain inflation at desired levels? Simply cancel enough govt held bonds at Reserve bank and let interest rates Smooth aggregate demand.
Transfer income payments are best handled by social security via Centrelink rather than via the taxation system. Pay everyone a guaranteed minimum income in lieu of the tax free threshold. Abolish cash. Apply a nominal o/s outflow payment to discourage offshoring.

November 15, 2021

"Why not abolish tax altogether and extract enough from the money supply":

That would be a tax on capital held in bank accounts.

Currently M1 is $1.5T and Commonwealth expenditure $500G. Bank account capital tax rate would need to be 33% / y.

Not even widows or orphans would leave capital in banks, or in cash, for more than a transactional moment.

SMSF Trustee
November 16, 2021

Brian, because it couldn't work!
What exactly is the money supply? M1, M2, M3, M6 or something else? There's your 1st problem- defining the base you're going to extract from.
And who will then be deemed to hold the "money" and pay over what's extracted?
And then, as Dudley days, there's the issue of this extraction just being a tax!
An inefficient, poorly targeted, impossible to administer tax.

November 13, 2021

Why not abolish taxation (except on o/s outflows) and balance Government spending by extracting sufficient from the money supply to balance expenditure to maintain inflation at desired levels? Just cancel the required level of Govt debt at Reserve Bank.

November 13, 2021

Why not have no tax at all and offset government spending by cancelling the appropriate amount of the bonds bought from the Reserve Bank by Treasury in order to ensure that the money supply balances out so that inflation is kept down to the desired level? Government spending will be matched, within inflation requirements, by how much is extracted from the money supply. As is now it would be up to the Reserve/Financial institutions to set interest rates in line with both the expanding/contracting domestic money supply and international borrowings.
Sure interest rates and prices may rise but that merely shifts aggregate demand by shaping consumption against output and effort.
That way no one will be making business decisions based on taxation considerations but rather how much profit/income they receive. It would not be possible to claim tax deductions, especially for business expenses. There could be an overseas company flat rate deduction from all monies leaving Australia, in line with international agreement requirements, but no company tax if earnings are retained in Australia. Firms and individuals would have little incentive to offshore their capital (unless it was obtained illegally! and then it would be more obvious than is now).
We need to forget the so called ‘progressive’ taxation, as it is a myth, and concentrate on people looking after themselves as much as they can rather than expecting a middle class to carry the burden. It is the responsibility of Government to look after those who cannot help themselves, and hence it should decide on competing demands on Government expenditure, not just raise taxes to pay for promises. Increase the rate of compulsory superannuation and pay a guaranteed minimum income in lieu of a tax-free threshold. Abolish cash.

Geoff Walker
October 12, 2021

The aphorism, attributed to various hairy-chested claimants, that "No nation ever taxed itself to prosperity" comes to mind when reading section 1 "Who pays tax?".

How much of Australia's GDP (and therefore prosperity) is financed by the personal spending of those 40% (or more) of the population who are net recipients of government spending? It looks to me that Australia has indeed taxed itself to prosperity!

October 10, 2021

Good article that puts a few facts into what is an emotive issue where the usual whingers want someone else to pay more tax so they can pay less. The tax system is set up to encourage people to behave in a particular way(i.e. incentivise) e.g. lower rates of taxation to encourage people to fund their own retirement and help reduce the huge welfare bill, childcare rebate to encourage women into the workforce to increase productivity, instant write offs etc. etc. I would suggest those who think they are being treated unfairly (I assume they have never accepted welfare or any tax deductions) change their attitude and educate themselves instead of trying to change the system.
As a self funded retiree who who has only ever received the average wage and never accepted welfare and now falls into the high bracket wish some of your readers could tell me how to pay no tax.
A point most people miss about negative gearing(whether you agree with it or not) is that it provides an entry for young people to invest at a reduced tax rate so they will pay more tax later. Retirees will usually sell rental properties and pay substantial capital gains tax or should have nil debt and will continue to pay income tax, land tax and rates so they pay more capital gains tax later.

Tacks Agent
October 10, 2021

I don’t believe the government employed high income earners can salary sacrifice hundreds of thousands, my understanding is they may have an opportunity to contribute a further 2% to 10% into super.

Re contribution limits and tax free super etc. I would have thought it would be so much easier (less admin and cost) if you allow a certain amount of tax free super income per annum per member (across all funds) and then tax the individual at the normal marginal tax rates beyond that. Why discourage self sufficiency and a potential death tax.

Martin Mulcare
October 08, 2021

Thanks, Graham, a great addition to our perspective.
I am interested in exploring the treatment of an individual's pension income from a super fund. As I understand it, I could receive a retirement income from my super fund of say $80,000pa and that doesn't appear in my taxable income. Let's accept that, under the current Australian system, it is rightly not taxed as income because it has been taxed in the fund. However, let's also say that I earn $10,000 in non-super investment income. Is my understanding correct that that income is also essentially tax-free because it falls under the $18k tax threshold? Under a progressive system, is that an appropriate outcome? Is it "fair" that the tax system just ignores my $80k income?

Graham Hand
October 08, 2021

Hi Martin, your explanation is my understanding on how the tax system works (except the income is not taxed in the fund if it is in pension mode). So is it fair? Well, see John Kalkman's article on is tax-free super fair, here:
But let's also look at the $80,000 number. $1.6 million in pension would need to achieve 5% to generate $80,000, which is only possible these days taking risk. So there may be a loss of capital in a downturn. You do raise a good point that having received $80,000, is it fair to also access the personal threshold of $18K.

Jon Kalkman
October 08, 2021

Martin, the income is earned by the super fund, not the member. And the fund, not the member, is responsible for the tax on that income. If it is a pension fund, the fund pays no tax as explained in my article. If the member takes a pension from a pension fund, they are required to take a minimum pension that increases with age, to the point where the pension withdrawn is greater than the fund’s income. So some the fund’s capital needs to liquidated to satisfy this cash requirement. It would be unfair to treat that capital as income. If the member takes a payment from an accumulation account there is no minimum requirement but the fund has already paid 15% tax on this income and 10% tax on capital gains.

In both cases, there is no maximum withdrawal and such a payment likely combines income with capital. It is possible, for example, to take the whole super balance in one payment and some people take lump sums from their super to pay off a mortgage. Should that be payment be treated as personal income?

Before 2007 that member withdrawal from a super fund was lightly taxed and since then, not at all, as explained in my article. Some people argue that these super payments to members should be taxed. I suppose fairness is in the eyes of the beholder but please consider the myriad taxes applied to super over the 30-40 years of accumulation and at death. You might consider withdrawals from a super fund as similar to withdrawals from a bank account where all the taxes have been paid and this is your money to dispose of at your discretion. Should this be taxable income?

Martin Mulcare
October 08, 2021

Thanks, Graham and Jon,
I appreciate your confirmation and the lens on "fairness" in Jon's article. I was deliberately naughty using the word "fair", knowing how many interpretations there are just from the children in my Primary Ethics classes.
I am more thinking about what is appropriate from Graham's broader consideration: "...a trade-off which requires wealthy people to support poor people. That’s part of a fair society and a progressive tax system. At a high level, those who have look after those who have not". Leaving aside the mechanisms, my personal view is that if I have an income of $80,000pa I am very willing to pay tax on additional income at marginal rates "to support poorer people". I appreciate that some of that income may technically be "capital" but I am not sure that would counter my sense of social obligation. And, yes, I can and do support charitable causes which may be another dimension of contribution in a fair society.

October 09, 2021

As Paul Keating would say ,the big picture.People seem determined to select part of the picture and refuse to see the big picture.
Very few people have the maximum in super.The vast majority in Australia are ordinary average people.
On the example given the person would have a gross income of $90K.They would also get no pension from the govt,saving the govt $26K and rising every year.Would the country be better off if everybody thought ,why bother,I'll collect the guaranteed $26K.I'll try to earn an extra approx $5K yearly so the govt doesn't start to reduce my pension at 50 cents in the $.

Or,would the country be better off if everybody thought ,I will give this a red hot go ,try to improve my retirement,and save the govt $26K per year and rising.The big picture is what needs to be looked at,not cherry picking what 0.1% of the population may or may not be doing.
As is pointed out over and over steps have been taken by the govt to prevent large amounts in super by the caps and maximum annual contributions that can be claimed as a tax deduction.As much as I dislike super from the day it came in it does improve retirement income and save following generations from paying higher taxes.If I was you Jon I would still be giving up on this,you can't make people see what they don't want to see.

On a different note I am a little bit surprised at the small amount of super that 65+ year old people have.As a shop steward when the 3% pay rise was given up under the accord ( 1986?) .I thought I had better do a little bit of self education on it as I expected to be asked a lot of questions.The conclusions I came to were that in real terms ( not nominal)people would go backwards,or break even at best.I expected a sum of $200 to $250K to be the retirement pot,approx 3 years wages in future $$ when I ran averages in the early 1990s.This was arrived at by an average of 4% contributions into super from 1986 to 2000,and 10% from 2000 to 2020. Thus 14 years at 4% gives .56 X annual income,and 20 years gives 2 year's annual income.Total contribution 2.56 years wages ,for a return of approx the same or less when they retired.

I wonder if when the system matures in 2050 and people may have contributed an average of 10% of wages for 50 years,will they have 5 years of average wages in the pot,perhaps 4 years in the pot,or 6 or 7 years wages in 2050 $$.

I do wish people would put a bit more time into self education rather than trying to find fault,and the constant what about,what if,look over there.

October 08, 2021

This is only a part of the picture. Many high net worth individuals could declare small individual tax income, as their true income has been distributed via family trust, via company structure where many personal expenses were done on company books. No surprises when people with net worths of 8 figures and lavish lifestyle filed a tax returns of mere $40k- $50k.

October 09, 2021

This is the precise reason any data that relies on ATO data is flawed at its source. Tax free pension has been identified but the amount of business profits and passive income that gets redistributed to family members or bucket companies would be very significant.

The ATO has no ability to aggregate this data (or doesn’t publish it if it does).

What it does show clearly however is that cries of ‘tax the rich’ based on personal income is ridiculous with less than 20% paying 2/3 already. It’s middle class salary earners carrying the unfair burden, this needs to change.

PS most property investors will now have no negative gearing deductions. This was FY19. With the rate drops since mortgage interest will be a much lower deduction.

Peter care
October 09, 2021

The solution is simple , don’t tax income but instead tax the value of all assets. Include in that your share of all assets in a family trust for which you are a beneficiary.
True wealth is in the assets you own not the income you wish to declare.
If you think this cannot work, it’s actually the way the Centrelink assets test works.

October 09, 2021

"Many high net worth individuals could declare small individual tax income, as their true income has been distributed via family trust":
'Undistributed income is taxed in the hands of the trustee at the top marginal tax rate' - and tax free to beneficiaries with taxable incomes less than their tax free thresholds.

"via company structure where many personal expenses were done on company books.":

Illegal if not declared, unfortunately.

"people with net worths of 8 figures and lavish lifestyle filed a tax returns of mere $40k- $50k.":

Having paid company tax on the retained profit. Useful when a near senior-hood as can claim franking credits on dividends and pay no tax.

Patrick Gallagher
October 07, 2021

A fascinating piece Graham, and comments likewise. Thank you!

Patrick Gallagher

October 07, 2021

Graham , you say : "The data below shows nearly 40% of individuals pay only 2% of personal income taxes. Many of these would also receive welfare so many people make no net contribution to government revenue (ignoring other taxes such as GST)." In reality , so much welfare is distributed that in effect that 40% is much closer to 60% who make no net contribution to government revenue which is another way of saying they are carried through life by the far fewer financially successful people at the top. Like Geoff who expresses the thought ,with a touch of wistful resentment I think , [" but it would be nice if there was acknowledgement that I'm already paying more than my "fair share" (using one definition of "fair") of tax...] but who is constantly portrayed in negative terms as though, despite his contribution , that is not sufficient to atone for all his success! 

October 07, 2021

1. Can you backup this claim with source? "so much welfare is distributed that in effect that 40% is much closer to 60% who make no net contribution to government revenue" 2. Ignoring gst is ignoring 10% of their income, including it would drive up tax collection from the bottom percentage. 3. You are ignoring the service that the bottom earners provide to the top earners so that the top earners can contribute that much. Without minimum wage workers and others such as call centre staff, the top earners will have to make their own fast food, thus having less time to earn more.

October 07, 2021

To Jack: 1. "Can you backup this claim with source? "so much welfare is distributed that in effect that 40% is much closer to 60% who make no net contribution to government revenue" Yes. Look up the ATO . and welfare: "Key issue Social security and welfare represents 35 per cent of the Australian Government’s expenses. The level and sustainability of this expenditure will be a key issue for the Parliament. Commentary on welfare expenditure often focuses on income support to working-age people.

2. "Ignoring GST is ignoring 10% of their income, including it would drive up tax collection from the bottom percentage." The first $18,200-00 of income is tax exempt. Most of their expenditure is not taxed as food and most staples do not have GST on them! !

October 07, 2021

Time to stop the offsetting of rental property losses against other income. This truly distorts the market and encourages unproductive investment.

Stuart Barry
October 06, 2021

I'd love to see the same table with tax paid based on total income (for many their income is high - tax free superannuation pensions) but tax nil. Result = many on high income would not be contributing

SMSF Trustee
October 06, 2021

Stuart Barry, that data would show you something like this:

- amount allowed to earn tax free income in pension phase is $1.7 mn
- dividends on that amount at 4% are $68k per annum.
- the tax payable on that amount if it were taxed at personal income tax rates would be $11,627, or 17%
- the social contract to get people to save for the long term demands, rightly so, that a tax break of 15-20% be given
- thus it's perfectly right that those earnings are tax free, and thus the company tax already paid should be refunded

For those who have more than this in super, they will pay 15% tax on their earnings within their fund.

That high horse of yours is about to buck you off I think.

Jon Kalkman
October 06, 2021

Stuart Barry, I’m not sure the ATO knows how much income the members of a super pension fund earns. Sure the ATO knows how much the fund earns from its tax return but for members, there are minimum pension withdrawals linked to age, but no maximum amount. So how much of that payment is income and how much is a return of capital?
In any case, any withdrawal from a super fund in retirement, pension or lump sum, is tax exempt. It doesn’t even appear on a personal tax return. Unless your non-super income is above the tax-free threshold, no tax return is required.
I keep trying to explain to people how good super is as a retirement savings vehicle, but instead of availing themselves of the tremendous opportunities, many people would rather not participate because they don’t trust super. So it must be a rort.
It isn’t. A tax-free super pension is available to everyone, but first you need to accumulate some super and not touch it until retirement. That’s the challenge.

Rob J
October 16, 2021

When I contributed to super, I thought the trade off for my tax discount, was not claiming (or be eligible to claim) a pension.
A good deal for all concerned I thought.
I still think that.
Am I wrong??

October 06, 2021

It is time to close the loopholes that allow high net worth individuals to avoid paying their fair share of the tax burden. Many of the high income employees in our society (ie, public servant/business leaders) use salary sacrifice to minimize tax. From my investigations they salary sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in to their pension funds. As a result most of their income is taxed at 15% which is significantly less than their marginal tax rate. The issue for me is there is no risk in this process unlike investments/self employed business deductions. It is simply a gift at the expense of lower income individuals. I think it is time they paid their fair share of tax.

Graham Hand
October 06, 2021

Pete, not sure what you are referring to with salary sacrifice of 'hundreds of thousands' a year. The annual cap for before-tax super contributions is $27,500 p.a. in 2021/22. This includes the regular super contributions made by your employer (usually 10%), any salary sacrifice contributions and any personal contributions where you intend to claim a tax deduction.

October 06, 2021

I thought salary sacrificing (before tax contributions) was limited to $27,500 p.a., not hundreds of thousands.

October 09, 2021

Wow .. just wow .. tell me you have no idea how taxation and superannuation works, at all .. the low level of financial illiteracy in Australia is a significant problem.

November 11, 2021

You are simply wrong. The amount you can salary sacrifice into superannuation is limited to $27,500/year. This contribution is taxed at 15%. Concessional amounts contributed in excess of this are taxed at your marginal tax rate and you are made to withdraw the excess amounts from the fund or suffer penalties up to 94%.

Jon Kalkman
October 06, 2021

“ the average assets per SMSF were $1.3 million”.

The other point is that the median assets per SMSF (where 50% are below this figure) is $733,000. Not all SMSFs belong to the “Top end of town”

October 06, 2021

#1 is always interesting to trot out when people start banging on about people needing to pay their "fair share" of tax. I'm not in the first quintile, but I'm comfortably in the second - and I'm always OK with governments and constituents having a discussion about adjusting tax rates to provide the services we all need, but it would be nice if there was acknowledgement that I'm already paying more than my "fair share" (using one definition of "fair") of tax...

My personal opinion is that everyone should pay at least some tax - skin in the game etc. - however that end is achieved.

October 06, 2021

Would be interesting to see an analysis (for the higher income categories) of how much Net Tax is paid by individuals together with their SMSF Tax, particularly those in Pension mode. I suspect that some "big hitters" whose SMSFs have large exposure to companies paying franked dividends, receive franking credits that lead to modest payable tax overall.

Articles such as this should also remind me that 70-to-80% of retirement-age Australians depend in whole or part on Age Pension.

October 06, 2021

Is this statement correct? "It’s thoughtful of tax policy to allow the loss to be charged immediately against income rather than the treatment of business losses which must be carried forward and charged against future profit" If I operate two arms of a business (under the same legal entity) and one branch (eg my Sydney store) makes a loss, and the other branch (eg my Melbourne store) makes a profit, then I can offset the loss of my Sydney store against the profit of my melbourne store. This is just like where I operate as a sole trader a lawn mowing business and a carpet cleaning business. One makes a profit and the other a loss, I can offset the loss against the profit and only pay tax on the net profit. Is this any different from being a wage earner and a property owner, where one part of my life makes a profit and the other a loss?

Greg Hollands
October 06, 2021

No difference at all John. But why spoil a good story with the facts!

Graham Hand
October 06, 2021

Hi John, yes, where one part of the same company makes a loss, it offsets the profit in another part of the same company. But a loss in your company cannot offset your personal income. I'm simply highlighting that it would be possible in tax law to have a loss on an investment property carried forward as a charge against future profit, in the same way a company loss is carried forward.

Noel Whittaker
October 06, 2021

A sole trader can offset losses against personal income I think

October 06, 2021

Thanks for a great piece of information. It's sad that it is not used more frequently in partisan debate. A piece of relevant data missing is the principal place of residence value because it skews the balance of thinking about these numbers.
Hopefully some time we can set a figure for the maximum tax free environment for retirement saving ( house, cash , investments , super etc) and people can plot their own destiny without pressure from tax incentives. How about $2 mill max of investments in a tax free environment , everything else gets taxed equally ?

October 09, 2021

Nice utopian idea Don but impossible. How do allocate discretionary trust entitlements and other structures?

What about those that live in a suburb where the median house is more than $2m. There are heaps in Sydney at least and some are hovels not mansions.

October 06, 2021

You’ve provided incredible perspective.
I knew I lived in a bubble but it appears I also had my head up my @


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