Every April, Tax Day comes around as the official deadline for Americans to submit income tax returns to the federal government.
Over $1 trillion is paid in individual income taxes every year, which are the main source of revenue for the government to offset its spending and, in theory, mitigate budget deficits. In practice, the U.S. operates with nearly $31 trillion in national debt and adds to it nearly every fiscal year.
Nonetheless, taxes are how the government keeps the lights on, and it’s been using them for more than a century.
This year, April 18 is Tax Day. Normally, the deadline is on the 15th, but the 2023 date was moved around because the 15th falls on a weekend and coincides with the District of Columbia’s Emancipation Day public holiday on Monday, April 17. That means the public has three extra days to file this year.
Taxpayers who request an extension will have until Monday, Oct. 16 to file.
A brief history
Though not a holiday, Tax Day has been observed by Americans since 1913, when government established the first federal income tax with the ratification of the 16th Amendment.
At the time, the Bureau of Internal Revenue created a new division and “correspondence unit” to address the flood of questions that came from the public about their new responsibility. The first 1040 form was created a year later and “Four Minute Men” deployed around the country on President Woodrow Wilson’s behalf to educate the public, giving speeches that lasted less than five minutes.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. Treasury modernized its punch-card system and began using photocopiers, electric typewriters and eventually computers. President Harry Truman overhauled the Bureau in 1952 and installed a civil service system led by a commissioner and chief counsel that required presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.
A year after, President Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed the Bureau of Internal Revenue to the name we know it today: the Internal Revenue Service in 1953. The tax deadline was also moved from March to April during his administration.
Americans were able to communicate with the IRS through written and broadcasted information and through brick-and-mortar Tax Assistance Centers, which are still in use today.
In the 1950s, high schools were even given “tax kits” by the IRS with enlarged copies of forms to prepare young people for their first jobs.
In the 1960s, tax processing was again updated with the help an invention borne out of James Tingle’s backyard. “Tingle tables” were specially designed desks for IRS workers to help them sort returns. In 2019, more than 15 million tax returns came through the tables during the tax filing season.
By the 1970s, an IRS hotline and nationwide automated tax system was operational. Then, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 further simplified the tax code and prepared for a new age of electronic filing that officially began in 1991.
With the .com era creating an appetite for digital tools and transactions across business, in 1998, Congress passed the Restructuring and Reform Act to create four divisions that catered services and expertise to taxpayers in similar groups.
An in the last 10 years, the IRS has unveiled a mobile app, more account services and a presence on social media as the modern outreach method.
Modern challenges for the IRS
While technology has made the job of the IRS less labor intensive, it still struggles to keep backlogs in check and maintain customer service levels for millions of taxpayers.
The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Annual Report to Congress identified hiring, training and processing delays as some of the agency’s most serious problems going into the 2023 tax season.
In October, the agency said it met its goal of hiring an additional 4,000 customer service representatives to help answer phones and provide other services for the 2023 tax season.
Still, the IRS’ budget has shrunk 15% over the last decade in part due to inflation, leaving staffing levels at a new low since the 1970s, the report said.
The IRS did receive an injection of funds from the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. For the upcoming fiscal year, the agency is requesting $14.1 billion, 15% above the 2023 enacted level.
The IRA supplements the agency’s discretionary budget and makes up for years of underfunding, according to the agency. However, continued mandatory funding is needed to continue operations after 2031, when the IRA expires.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.