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According to The Economist (May 13th, 2017, print edition, webpage),

America has more tax preparers—over 1m, according to a project at George Washington University—than it has police and firefighters combined.

Is this true?

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    How is a tax preparer defined? I do my own taxes: does that make me one? – jamesqf May 17 '17 at 6:10
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    Addendum: "As of 2014, there were 1,134,400 firefighters in the United States (not including firefighters who work for the state or federal governments or in private fire departments)."- Wikipedia – PointlessSpike May 17 '17 at 6:54
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    It's worth noting that the US has more taxpayers than criminals and fires. – phoog May 17 '17 at 17:36
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    I fail to see the utility in the comparison. Seems as useful as comparing the number of cat videos online to tax preparers, which fortunately is so obvious that nobody has to waste their time creating definitions, gather data, or confirm sources. – aaaaaa May 17 '17 at 21:43
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    I hope for you that you suffer from crime and fire much less often than from taxes. – Hagen von Eitzen May 19 '17 at 16:44
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No

As per the statistics that @gerrit cited, the statement as listed is untrue. There are almost as many firefighters alone as tax preparers.

There is a true way of stating it. If we explicitly limit to just full time paid fire fighters and law enforcement professionals, then there are more tax preparers. However, this is a fundamentally unfair way of counting. If we are going to limit fire fighters to just the full time paid members, we should also limit the tax preparers in the same way. Many tax preparers are themselves part time. They work just for the few months after W-2 and 1099 forms are issued and before 1040 forms are due.

If we limited just to professional, full-time tax preparers, there are only about 70,000 as per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To get the larger number, we have to include seasonal tax-preparers and accountants/auditors who fill out tax returns. So there are fewer career tax preparers than there are career fire fighters or law enforcement professionals separately, much less added together.

Regardless, the Economist's formulation is incorrect. As written, the statement would include volunteer firefighters and paid-per-call firefighters. But including them means that there are about as many firefighters alone as tax preparers, even including seasonal workers and people whose profession is listed as accountant or auditor.

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    +1 for pointing out that vast majority of tax preparers are part-time and seasonal – antlersoft May 17 '17 at 15:15
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    I wonder if there would be any way to compare full-time equivalents? – Nate Eldredge May 17 '17 at 17:07
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    One could argue if one was was going to include volunteer firefighters who receive no compensation one should also include all people who help family or friends prepare taxes without compensation. Which I suspect is a lot. I suppose I am saying, could this claim be true if one includes persons part or full time but who are paid? – Vality May 17 '17 at 17:30
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    @Vality That would lead to even more problems as the term volunteer firefighter covers a wide range of people. Some are purely volunteers, some are volunteers who are reimbursed, some are paid part time, some are paid on-call. Also they're trained to career firefighter standards so comparing them to a friend who helps you do taxes is a little disingenuous. – JonK May 17 '17 at 20:29
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    @jamesqf Because some people's taxes practically require a full-time accountant by themselves... and that's to say nothing of large corporations (which only count as one 'taxpayer,' but may have dozens or even hundreds or more people working on their taxes.) – reirab May 18 '17 at 15:01
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True, almost true, or false, depending on sources and interpretation.


Depending on sources, the number of professional firefighters + law enforcement officers is either the same or slightly smaller than the number of professional tax preparers. However, if we include part-time or amateur firefighters, the claim is false.

From Face the Facts USA, A Project of the George Washington University, comes the claim with sources (see below). Evidently, they define tax preparers as those who make a living helping taxpayers deciphering US tax code. Likewise, the number only considers professional firefighters.

Note that this is not peer-reviewed research, but rather has the nature of a blog, even though it's run by a university, it should be considered with some care. However, all the numbers are directly sourced to the U.S. Federal Government.

Up to 1.2 million tax preparers make a living deciphering the labyrinth U.S. tax code for taxpayers. We have more professional tax preparers in the United States than law enforcement officers (765,000) and professional firefighters (310,400) combined.

(...)

Sources:
Internal Revenue Service: “Return Preparer Review Leads to Recommendations For New Requirements of Paid Tax Return Preparers”

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: “Firefighters”

US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics: “Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 2008”

However, FEMA give a higher estimate of firefighters:

  • Registered fire departments are staffed by approximately 1,217,000 personnel. This includes career, volunteer and paid per call firefighters as well as civilian staff and nonfirefighting personnel.
  • There were a total of 1,065,700 active career, volunteer and paid per call firefighters representing nearly 88 percent of the registered departments' personnel.
  • Of the active firefighting personnel, 33 percent were career firefighters, 55 percent were volunteer firefighters, and 12 percent were paid per call firefighters.

…this would put the total number of active career firefighters at 0.33*1,065,700 = 351,860. Adding this number to the number of law enforcement officers puts law enforcement + firefighters at the same level.

I don't think the number of amateur tax preparers can be reasonably defined, let alone accurately measured.

In conclusion, depending on what federal agency one sources information to, the number of professional firefighters + law enforcement officers is either the same as the number of professional tax preparers, or it may be slightly smaller.

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    Note the term "professional" is very important to this answer, but the term is not mentioned anywhere in the original claim. – Beofett May 17 '17 at 17:57
  • @Beofett True. Adapted to emphasise that. – gerrit May 17 '17 at 17:59
  • So GWU's numbers are omitting federal law enforcement( FBI, DEA, Military) in their numbers, Can't tell if they are skipping that on that for firefighters. I wonder what percentage of these "tax prepares" subsist soley on this year round. – Mad Myche May 17 '17 at 22:04
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    What about amateur tax preparers? – Paŭlo Ebermann May 18 '17 at 19:18
  • @PaŭloEbermann I don't think we can reasonably define/measure those; see comment. – gerrit May 19 '17 at 11:56

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