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2022 Digital Video Storytelling, Short Form, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

How the .001% Use Retirement Accounts as Tax-Free Piggy Banks

About the Project

One extraordinary day, ProPublica received a vast trove of data that disclosed the income taxes paid by thousands of the nation’s wealthiest citizens over more than 15 years. It was the biggest leak of tax information in U.S. history, and we immediately assembled a group of reporters to explore its significance. As the team pored over the reams of numbers, it had a shocking realization. The titans of America’s New Gilded Age had paid a stunningly small amount of taxes. In some years, billionaires like George Soros, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg and Elon Musk owed not a single dollar in income tax to the U.S. Treasury.

Tax experts and scholars have long understood that the ultrarich don’t pay their fair share of taxes. But the data brought to light a pattern that was fully understood only by the ultrarich and their advisers. These billionaires weren’t cheating. They were avoiding the burdens borne by nearly every other wage-earning American using completely legal strategies far beyond the reach of ordinary wage earners.

Almost immediately after acquiring this data, we knew that visual explanations would be critical to our storytelling. The challenge would be to convey unimaginable amounts of wealth, extreme contrasts in scale, and complicated maneuvers by the ultra wealthy. How do we make people relate and understand? How do we show them how this affects them? Can we make the storytelling enjoyable and informative?

“How the .001% use Retirement Accounts as Tax-Free Piggy Banks” was the second of three short, animated videos in our series “The IRS FIles.” We assembled a diverse team of producers, illustrators and animators to create a humorous but gut-punching video series that unpacks some of the most outrageous techniques used by the ultrawealthy to avoid taxes.

Viewers get to see how the ultra-wealthy use Roth IRA accounts–which were created to help middle class people–in order to shelter vast amounts of wealth from taxation. Ordinary people send their little pink piggy banks down the road of life, hoping to get to retirement with some funds. But for the wealthiest Amerians, that little pink piggy bank balloons into a golden behemoth, leaving everyone else in its dust.

In this video, we used simple visual metaphors and down-to-earth language. The combination of dynamic illustration and animation makes complex financial concepts easy to understand—and the inequalities exacerbated by current tax policy impossible to ignore.