The History of Taxes, in One Mega-Rich Family


(Photo: elycefeliz / Flickr)

David Rockefeller has just passed away.

You may have already heard that news. You may have not. America’s major media outlets haven’t treated Rockefeller’s death — at age 101 — as a top-of-the-news story.

How things change. Once upon a time, any breaking news that involved a Rockefeller almost automatically qualified as news not to be missed. And for good reason.

A century ago, David Rockefeller’s granddad, John D. Rockefeller, ranked as America’s richest man. No other fortune in the United States — or the world — came even close in size to his.

When old John D. passed away in 1937 at age 97, newspapers treated his death as a mega big deal. Front-page headlines everywhere. Editorial pages filled with reflections on his long and lucrative life.

One of those reflections came from America’s most noted 20th-century pundit, columnist Walter Lippmann. The nation, Lippmann observed, would likely never see a fortune as grand as Rockefeller’s ever again. John D. had “lived long enough to see the methods by which such a fortune can be accumulated outlawed by public opinion, forbidden by statute, and prevented by the tax laws.”

In the United States, Lippmann added, “sentiment has turned wholly against the private accumulation of so much wealth.”

John D. Rockefeller raged mightily against that public sentiment over his life’s last decades. He fiercely denounced, for instance, the drive to enact a federal income tax.

“When a man has accumulated a sum of money within the law,” old John D. intoned, “the people no longer have any right to share in the earnings resulting from the accumulation.”

The people felt otherwise. A federal income tax became the law of the land in 1913. That tax would go on to whittle down the fortune John D. later left his six grandchildren.

The most celebrated of those six, longtime New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, would end up feeling intensely embarrassed about his diminished financial status, as one Washington insider discovered in 1974.

That insider, a veteran lobbyist by the name of Tom Korologos, vetted Nelson Rockefeller to be then-President Gerald Ford’s vice president.

“I’ve got something to worry about,” Korologos remembers Nelson grimacing. The former governor, Korologos soon learned, didn’t want to publicly reveal his personal financial picture.

“His concern,” the vetter explained, “was that when it became public, he wasn’t going to be as rich as everybody thought he was.”

What had happened to the fabled Rockefeller family fortune? Taxes.

Beginning in the early 1940s and lasting into the 1960s, the federal tax rate on individual income over $ 200,000 annually hovered around 90 percent.

And many states also had their own progressive taxes. In New York, the state tax rate on top-bracket income stood at 15.375 percent.

Deep pockets could, of course, deduct their state taxes off their federal taxable income. But those deductions didn’t change the basic bottom line: The extravagantly rich, in mid-20th century America, were losing their capacity to be extravagant.

Nelson Rockefeller passed away in 1979, just before the Reagan Revolution began undoing the progressive tax system that had so shaved his net worth. His younger brother David, a banker, lived on to prosper in the rich-people-friendly political environment the Reagan years ushered in.

Where Nelson watched his wealth shrink, David saw his wealth soar. At his death, Forbes magazine put David’s net worth at $ 3.3 billion, the world’s 604th largest fortune.

What would John D. Rockefeller think about how his last grandchild’s life turned out? He might be a tad disappointed that his flesh and blood no longer ranked as the richest of the world’s rich. But he’d probably be overjoyed that in America the rich still rule.

At least for now.

Sam Pizzigati is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.


The Hunt for Black Family History

Family Tree

(Photo: Niall Williams / Flickr)

Maybe you’ve seen those commercials pushing Americans to “discover their stories” by digging into their family histories.

Millions of Americans find meaning from these searches. My mom is one of them. She’s doing a deep dive into our family history, reviving the stories of past ancestors in America.

She discovered that the German last name we have wasn’t our original family name. Somewhere — perhaps in Ellis Island, once a gateway for millions of European immigrants — our name was changed. That’s made it hard to learn about our history before emigration.

On my father’s side, though, the fog of history hides much more than names — and it’s incredibly more painful. You see, my father is African-American. And for black Americans, searches on sites like yield blank spots on the family tree.

Before the Civil War, after all, our ancestors were considered property, not people. This means there are no marriage certificates, medical records, or school or census records. Instead, pre-Civil War family research means sifting through bills of sale, auction records, and property ledgers with uncertainty as families were often torn apart.

Even if my family had lived in a state that abolished slavery before the Civil War, or if someone from my family was a freed person in the North, I’d still have to do extensive research to find them. Many free blacks were kidnapped and forced back into slavery under federal laws like the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850.

African-American genealogy is also difficult because of names.

Enslaved Africans were forced to take the last names of slave owners, which were often changed when individuals were sold to another family or institution. After the Civil War, emancipated blacks sometimes took on the names of their former masters, as is the case with part of my family, or made up new last names altogether.

Even after emancipation, black Americans continued to face persecution in the South and beyond. Many fled West or North or elsewhere, and the paper trail is nonexistent or impossible to follow.

When they did make it somewhere else, they still faced lynchings, arson attacks, bombings, and theft from hostile whites. These acts of terror erased records and histories, along with families and people.

Now, however, there are some exciting breakthroughs in the search for family history for African Americans.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project recently launched a new website,, which includes the names of almost 2 million men, women, and children.

It brings together resources from various archives, museums, libraries, and digitized documents collected by the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was established in 1865 to provide services to newly emancipated communities. Its archives include bank records, marriage and death certificates, military service records, migration information, and so much more.

The new site also allows a partial name search, a game changer.

Oral histories of formerly enslaved people are another invaluable resource — check out the Library of Congress to start. Others include records kept by African-American newspapers, Benevolent Societies, churches, and so forth, which are available online and in public libraries.

Finally, DNA tests are another new tool for people tracing their ancestry.

But DNA can reveal a painful lineage. For example, black women were often raped by slave owners or forced to have intercourse with enslaved men to bear children into slavery. How do you deal with that in a family tree?

I’m grateful for the chance to glimpse new branches of my family tree. But ultimately, every one of my African ancestors was kidnapped from Africa. So even if I find a ship manifest or pay for a DNA test, I’ll never fully know the places, stories, and families that are my ancestry.

This is the painful legacy of our collective American history.

Mandisa Routheni is a New Mexico fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Paid Family Leave Comes to D.C.


(Photo: mrhayata/Flickr)

Getting time off when you’re sick, or need to care for a new child or ailing parent, shouldn’t be a luxury enjoyed only by those who are financially well off. Yet low-wage workers in the United States — the workers who need paid leave the most — typically have this key benefit denied them.

But not anymore in Washington, D.C.

Activists in the city recently overcame stiff opposition from corporate lobbyists to win one of the country’s most generous paid-leave policies. The new law guarantees eight weeks of paid time off for new parents, six weeks for those caring for sick family members, and two weeks of personal sick time.

One key to this victory: outspoken support from small business leaders like Ethel Taylor, owner of a local pet-grooming parlor called the Doggie Washerette.

Taylor first became involved in the paid-leave struggle when she met an activist with the Main Street Alliance, who was going door-to-door down D.C.’s Georgia Avenue talking to business leaders about the paid-leave plan the group was backing.

The plan’s novel mechanism for funding paid-leave benefits particularly impressed Taylor. The D.C. law will use a “social insurance model” funded through a 0.62 percent payroll tax on all private-sector employers, so none of them will have to pay the full cost of employees’ sick time.

“I would’ve been gone tomorrow if I’d had to pay out of pocket for the cost of an employee’s leave time,” Taylor told me.

The compensation employees will receive under the new D.C. law significantly improves upon leave policies in other jurisdictions. The District government will reimburse employees for 90 percent of their first $ 900 in weekly pay and 50 percent of their remaining weekly pay, with a limit of $ 1,000 per week.

By comparison, private sector employees in California can receive only up to 55 percent of their wages.

Taylor has in the past taken her beautifully groomed standard poodle Joy to campaign events for candidates she supported. But the D.C. paid-leave drive has otherwise been her first encounter with political activism.

She had some special motivation. Taylor personally had to take a lot of unpaid time off after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Under the D.C. law, business owners like Taylor can also tap into the paid-leave fund.

But Taylor’s commitment went beyond her own personal situation. “I’d always been active in my neighborhood of Shepherd Park. But when I opened the Doggie Washerette there five years ago, I felt a whole other level of responsibility to serve the public.”

Working with the Main Street Alliance, Taylor attended public meetings, penned a commentary in support of the paid leave law, and did other media interviews. The new legislation, adopted on December 20, will cover everyone working in the District for a private sector employer, including the self-employed.

At the federal level, we can’t expect much action on family-friendly work policies in the near future. The man nominated to be the next Secretary of Labor, fast food CEO Andrew Puzder, is strongly opposed to paid leave policies.

But as Washington residents themselves proved, cities and states don’t need to wait for leaders in Washington to act. D.C.’s successful campaign for comprehensive paid leave offers important lessons for other communities — not least that small businesses and employees can be on the same side.

The post Paid Family Leave Comes to D.C. appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits, where an earlier version of this piece appeared. Distributed by 


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