California corporate profits reached a record-breaking $368 billion in 2021, but they pay just about half of what they did in the early 1980s in state taxes as a share of those profits. Building a tax system that is more fair will help Californians — whose wages have not kept pace with inflation or record profits — make ends meet.
All Californians should have the means to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, and to invest in education and advancement for themselves and their families. California’s businesses have a role to play in achieving this vision, both in providing well-paying jobs and in contributing their fair share to state revenues to support public services — including a safety net for people during times of unemployment, disability, or when time is needed to care for family. However, while corporations have seen skyrocketing profits in recent years, the typical California worker’s earnings have barely kept up with inflation.
California corporate profits reached $368 billion in 2021, reflecting a 155% increase since 2002 in inflation-adjusted terms. In contrast, a typical California full-time, year-round worker only saw their employment earnings increase by 13% during that time period after accounting for inflation.1The higher median wage growth seen in 2020 and 2021 was likely due in part to a change in the composition of the workforce. Because lower-paid workers disproportionately lost their jobs during the first two years of the pandemic, the remaining workforce was relatively higher paid. Nationally, this composition effect had mostly subsided by 2022. Indeed, inflation-adjusted median employment earnings growth in California from 2002 to 2022 was only 8%. This figure is not shown in the chart because comparable data on corporate profits for 2022 is not yet available.
Corporate profits are highly concentrated among a small group of very profitable corporations. For example, less than 1 out of every 100 corporations (just 0.6%) made $10 million or more in annual profits in California in 2021. However, this small share of corporations accounted for more than 60% of corporate profits statewide.
Those corporations with profits of at least $10 million saw their state profits more than double from $113 billion to $234 billion between 2017 and 2021. Corporations with profits of $5 million to $10 million also saw a near-doubling of their profits during that same period. At the same time that profitable corporations were doing exceedingly well, many Californians — particularly those with low incomes and Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and other Californians of color — suffered the devastating health and economic consequences of COVID-19, and continue to struggle with the high costs of necessities. Californians have seen their purchasing power fall with rising prices in recent years, a phenomenon which some researchers suggest has been amplified by corporations keeping prices high even as their costs declined and their profit margins increased.
Existing Tax Policy Exacerbates Inequities
Recent research shows that federal and state tax systems actually reinforce the concentration of profits among a small share of large corporations. In other words, after-tax profits are even more concentrated at the top than pre-tax profits. For example, the largest 10% of US public non-financial corporations held 95% of domestic corporate profits before federal and state taxes, but 99% of profits after taxes, according to analysis by the Roosevelt Institute. This is not surprising considering that some of the biggest corporate tax breaks provide disproportionate advantages to large and multinational corporations, and these corporations can afford to hire expensive accountants and lawyers to help them game federal and state tax systems.
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More equitable state taxation of corporations would counteract the outsized advantage of corporations with the most market power and raise needed state revenues for critical public services to benefit California’s communities. It could also increase racial and economic equity in the state, since corporate profits flow to corporate stockholders, who are disproportionately white and wealthy. The equity impacts would be even greater if the revenues raised were used to support Californians who have been economically disadvantaged by racism and discrimination.
Big corporations can afford to contribute their fair share in taxes. Corporations pay about half of what they did in the early 80s in state taxes as a share of their California profits. Plus, California corporate taxes are a minuscule share of their overall business expenses.
Requiring immensely profitable corporations to contribute more to supporting state services and combating corporate tax avoidance would level the playing field among businesses and help create a more equitable state for Californians.