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Newspaper columnist and TV pundit George Will says the current U.S. tax code takes more manpower to maneuver than firefighting and law enforcement combined.
"The complexity of the code, which is about 4 million words, is why America has more people employed as tax preparers (1.2 million) than as police and firefighters," Will wrote in a July 12, 2017, column on tax reform.
According to the National Taxpayer Advocate’s annual report to Congress this year, the 2016 tax code indeed came to roughly 4 million words. And even they agreed it’s convoluted.
The tax code "rewards taxpayers who can afford expensive tax advice and discriminates against taxpayers who cannot," the report said.
But are there more Americans employed as tax preparers than police and firefighters? After a reader asked us to look into it, we found it’s not the case.
Will did not respond to our request for comment, but the number in the story linked to a U.S. News & World Report article from 2012, which we eventually traced back to an Internal Revenue Service report citing a 2007 statistic. The number given was that between 900,000 and 1.2 million people were "preparing tax returns for a fee."
We asked the IRS for a more recent estimate.
About 713,448 people had current preparer tax identification numbers, or PTINs, in 2017, the closest estimate to the number of people employed as tax preparers this year. This is an annually renewed credential that the IRS requires of every tax preparer, a prerequisite that wasn’t in place when the original estimate Will cited was created.
When we added the number of these civil officers together, they exceeded tax preparers by 260,152 people.
The BLS had a much lower figure for people employed as tax preparers -- 70,030 people -- but these don’t include individuals who were self-employed or identified as attorneys, accountants or auditors, as the survey only allows people to identify one occupation.
Will isn't the only person to make this mistake. A May 13, 2017, Economist article also included the outdated information.
Will said that the number of tax preparers outnumbered the number of firefighters and police officers in the United States, but he was looking at outdated data. When we looked at the most recent statistics from the IRS and BLS, we found that the sum of firefighters and police officers outnumbers tax preparers.
We rate this statement False.
Washington Post, "The democrat who knows the tax code is a rotting carcass," July 12, 2017
National Taxpayer Advocate, Annual Report to Congress, executive summary, 2016
National Taxpayer Advocate, Annual Report to Congress, legislative recommendations, 2016
US News, "There Are More Tax Preparers In America Than Firefighters And Police Combined," Aug. 15, 2012
IRS.gov, Return Preparer Review, Dec. 2009
Email interview with Gary Steinberg, Deputy Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 17, 2017
Phone interview with Stacey Standish, Labor Statistics Bureau spokesperson, July 18, 2017
BLS.gov, Tax Preparers Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016
BLS.gov, Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016
BLS.gov, Firefighters Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016
Phone interview with Cecilia Barreda, Internal Revenue Service spokesperson, July 18, 2017
IRS.gov, Return Preparer Office Federal Tax Return Preparer Statistics, July 1, 2017
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