Nothing Friendly to Low-Income Families in House Republicans’ Child Tax Credit Reform

July 2, 2014

Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee took another step in their piecemeal approach to tax reform last week. The focus this time was the individual tax code — specifically, the Child Tax Credit.

No big surprise here, I suppose. We know Republicans have decided they need to show they care about the interests of working families. And what could be more family friendly than a more generous Child Tax Credit?

For better-off families, the Ways and Means bill surely is that. But for low-income families, nothing of the sort. Some millions, in fact, could no longer claim it at all.

What Is the Child Tax Credit?

Like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit reduces federal tax liabilities for filers who claim it. In the case of the CTC, those eligible are parents with dependent children under the age of 17. Each of the kids is worth a credit of up to $1,000.

Also like the EITC, the CTC phases in and then out. However, anyone with earned income can claim the EITC. For the CTC, the phase-in currently begins at $3,000.

This threshold isn’t permanent law. It was set by the Recovery Act and extended through 2017 as part of the fiscal cliff deal. Without the extension, the threshold would have been about $13,300 last year — and higher this year because the permanent law provides for an annual adjustment to reflect inflation.

The income level at which the phase-out begins depends on whether the filer is a single parent or married — and if married, whether filing jointly or separately.

The phase-out threshold for a single parent is more than twice the threshold for a married couple filing jointly — $75,000, as compared to $110,000. The threshold for a married person filing separately is simply half the joint filer threshold.

The fact that the threshold for a married couple is less than double the threshold for two single parents is sometimes referred to as a marriage penalty. The penalty here, i.e., the ability to claim the full credit, kicks in only when a single working parent marries — and obviously not always then.

Unlike the EITC thresholds, the CTC phase-out thresholds aren’t indexed to keep pace with inflation. But they’re considerably higher. For example, a married couple becomes ineligible for the EITC when its income is less than half the phase-out threshold for the jointly-filing couple claiming the CTC.

What Does the Ways and Means Bill Do?

The bill House Ways and Means Republicans passed would eliminate the so-called marriage penalty by raising the phase-out threshold for married couples filing jointly to twice the threshold for single parents — $150,000.

The higher threshold would be indexed to inflation, as would the threshold for single parents. The maximum $1,000 per child credit would also increase with the inflation rate.

The maximum credit boosts would, of course, benefit only families with earnings high enough to qualify for the full credit. Many already don’t. In 2011, 23% of children with working parents received only a partial credit, according to a Tax Policy Center brief.

These changes would all become permanent law — at an estimated cost of nearly $115 billion over the first 10 years. Again, no offset, since tax breaks seem to have a privileged status.

But not altogether. The CTC improvements initiated by the Recovery Act would be left to expire. So the threshold set in permanent law would kick in at the end of 2017, with all the inflation adjustments since it was temporarily superseded. And that qualifying threshold will rise — and rise — because there will be ongoing annual adjustments.

How Would the Bill Affect Low-Income Families?

As of 2018, families earning less than about $14,500 wouldn’t qualify for the CTC at all, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ analysis of the bill.

A single mother with two children and that $14,500 a year income would lose $1,750. Parents with somewhat higher incomes would lose as well, since their credits would, as now, be calculated on the basis of how much they made over the threshold.

At the same time, a married couple with two children and a joint income at the new phase-out threshold would gain $2,200. And families with considerably higher incomes would still qualify for a partial credit.

Looking forward to 2023, the Tax Policy Center projects that more than two-thirds of the credit, in dollars, would benefit families in the top two-fifths of the income scale.

The refundable Child Tax Credit lifted about 3 million people — more than half of them children — above the poverty threshold in 2012, according to another CBPP analysis.

Without the Recovery Act improvements, roughly 900,000 more people would have been officially poor. This, as I’ve often remarked, is very poor indeed.

One can understand then why no Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee voted in favor of the misnamed Child Tax Credit Improvement Act.

Improvements friendly to better-off families, for sure. But as in the past, Republicans don’t extend their friendliness to families at the bottom of the income scale — not even those who work.

UPDATE: The House Rules Committee added a provision to this bill that would deny the CTC to parents who file using an Individual Tax Identification Number, rather than a Social Security number. These are mostly immigrants. According to recent estimates, about 5.5 million children would lose the credit. All but about a million are U.S. citizens.

 


DC Fitness Club Owners Again Up in Arms Over Sales Tax Expansion

June 16, 2014

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the District of Columbia faced a severe revenue shortfall. Balancing the budget — as the District, like virtually all states must — required deep program cuts, unless laws were modified to collect more taxes.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute and allies recommended, among other things, an expansion of the sales tax to at least some of the services that were perplexingly exempt — fur storage, for example, and homes-away-from-home for fur-bearing pets.

Word got out that the DC Council just might tax some of the exempt services. And next thing you knew, Councilmembers were barraged with e-mails from people who worked out at gyms and/or took for-fee yoga lessons — these orchestrated by the business owners, of course.

For this, as well as other reasons, the Council decided to increase the sales tax rate, but leave services alone.

Now we’re being treated to another round of outrage because a Council majority has voted to apply the sales tax to “health clubs,” as well as five other types of services.

This time, the sales tax expansion would partly offset revenues the District would lose by adopting other recommendations made by the Tax Revision Commission.

Most of these would cut personal income tax liabilities for low and moderate-income filers. But there’d also be a reduction in business franchise taxes — presumably a boon to the unhappy fitness club owners.

Clearly, the tax cuts must be offset. Otherwise, the District would be left with many, many millions less for essential programs and services.

And clearly, the fitness club members will have considerably more money in their pockets to pay the 5.75% tax on their dues — on average, $36.33 a month for those with adjusted gross incomes in the $50,000-$70,000 range, according to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

What’s now a $70 a month gym membership would cost an extra $4.01 — less than the cost of two short lattes at Starbucks.

But, says the Yoga Alliance, the District would be “taxing essential healthcare.” A “wellness tax,” one of the several petitions calls it. This makes about as much sense as saying that the sales tax on my daily newspaper is a tax on literacy — or informed citizenship, if you prefer.

We’re asked to worry especially about lower-income residents — people “on the fringe,” as one fitness club owner calls them.

Those folks over in the east part of the city have “ZERO full-service gyms,” exclaims another petition. And the smaller operations there “don’t need another reason to have fewer customers,” especially when obesity and diabetes rates are higher in low-income areas.

Might this have something to do with the fact that many who live there can’t afford a healthful diet, let alone a health club membership? Is there no way to get exercise except at a members-only gym or in a yoga class?

The so-called yoga tax will bring in an estimated $5 million in the first year it’s effective. Where will that $5 million come from if the fitness club folks get their way — or the additional millions in years to come?

From the “record [revenue] surpluses,” Councilmember Jack Evans says — as if we don’t have better uses for the money, e.g., affordable housing for homeless residents. As if the latest recession is the last we’ll ever have.

But it won’t be. Sooner or later, the mayor and the Council will again have a tough time balancing the budget. As always, programs that serve the needs of low-income residents will be especially vulnerable.

So, says Citizens for Tax Justice, will businesses whose goods and services aren’t exempt from the sales tax — and, of course, their customers. But there will be “less pressure to jack up the sales tax rate” if the base is broadened now.

In other words, giving the fitness club owners a free pass will shift the burden to other business owners — and to residents who’ve got no choice but to buy certain taxable items, e.g., toilet paper, soap, diapers.

All this said, I understand how the health club owners could feel picked on. As I said, their services are one of only six types the Council’s plan would tax.

The group seems to me oddly arbitrary — carpet cleaning, home water delivery, car washes, billiards parlors and bowling alleys, storage locker rentals, plus tanning studios, which are lumped together with health clubs.

An expert retained by the Tax Revision Commission identified these — apparently because he thought they’d be difficult for residents to purchase untaxed. But he also recommended two the Council will leave tax-exempt, unless the package changes before the final vote.

Notwithstanding the rationale, I find the choices over-selective. People who have to store their belongings because they’ve lost their homes will pay the sales tax. People who store their fur coats still won’t.

People who have their cars washed will pay the sales tax. People who have their dogs washed still won’t. People who go bowling will pay the sales tax. People who go to the ballet still won’t.

Merely examples from a list that’s perhaps a bit outdated, but still fairly accurate. There are more than eighty tax-exempt services on it.

Seems to me the better approach would have been to begin with the presumption that services would be taxed and then selectively exempt those for which there’s a compelling reason. Health club memberships wouldn’t qualify in my book, but bona fide healthcare would.

 

 


Double Standard in Congress: No Offsets for Tax Breaks, But a Must for Unemployment Benefits

May 8, 2014

Seems Congress is about to engage in one of its periodic bipartisan rituals — a retroactive extension of targeted tax breaks, each of which is near and dear to the heart of at least one member and his/her influential constituents.

Near and dear to the hearts of many constituents is an extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation. After months of blustering and filibustering, the Senate has passed a foreshortened EUC extension — only five months, back-dated to January 1.

The main reason it’s short is that Republicans insisted that the costs be offset. Now will they — and Democrats as well — apply the same principle to the so-called extenders?

Apparently not, unless something remarkable happens. The Senate Finance Committee has already approved an extension package. It will cost $85.3 billion over 11 years (2014-24), counting offsets worth about 1% of that. About 90% of the total will reportedly benefit businesses, especially large corporations.

The Republican House Ways and Means majority has gone further. Its initial package of bills would make some of the biggest corporate tax breaks permanent — and boost the biggest. Revenue losses over the first 11 years total about $310 billion. No offset.

What Are the Extenders?

The extenders are only a subset of exclusions, credits, deductions and the like in the federal tax code. What distinguishes them is that they expire every couple of years. At least, they have up until now.

The most familiar, I suppose, is the tax credit corporations can claim for research and experimentation (formerly research and development). It will cost $155.5 billion over the 11-year period, if increased and taken out of the extender category, as House Ways and Means Republicans intend.

This worthy investment in our private, for-profit sector can subsidize such socially beneficial activities as the development of new packaging for a fast food product, according to a Center for Tax Justice brief.

Less known, but very important to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is the Equine Equity Act — not a civil rights law for horses, as the title suggests, but a pair of provisions that allow racehorse owners to write off a hefty portion of their costs.

NASCAR race track and restaurant owners get speedier write-offs than less advantaged businesses, as do businesses on Indian reservations, including those engaged in coal production.

Puerto Rican rum producers have a tax credit all their own. So do film and TV producers. Also investors in certain small business start-ups, who can sell their stock after five years without paying any capital gains tax.

And there are two highly-technical extenders that enable multinational corporations to defer federal taxes for as long as they choose. I’ll leave it to the Center for American Progress to explain.

Will merely note that they’ll cost about $8 billion a year, according to Americans for Tax Fairness and its coalition partners. They’re among the provisions House Ways and Means would make permanent.

Not all the tax breaks are for businesses, however.

Teachers, for example, may take an above-the-line deduction, i.e., subtract from their gross income, what they pay out of pocket for books and supplies they buy for classroom use — a sad commentary on the state of public education funding.

There’s also an above-the-line deduction that low and moderate-income taxpayers may take for higher education and certain related fees.

Homeowners can deduct what they pay not only for interest on their mortgage, but for the mortgage insurance lenders generally require.

Taxpayers can deduct what they’ve paid in state and local sales taxes instead of deducting their state income tax payments — a boon to filers in the nine states that have no or only a partial income tax and to state and local governments, which can charge higher sales taxes than what might otherwise be politically possible.

Not an exhaustive list, by any means. All told, 55 tax breaks expired at the end of last year. Congress will almost surely renew most, if not all — and on a bipartisan basis.

A Double Standard

Everyone from left to right believes the federal tax code is ripe for reform — one that would eliminate many of these “temporary” tax breaks and permanently incorporate the rest.

At the same time, every one of the breaks is in the tax code because some taxpayers with clout wanted it there. Talk about your job creators. Corporations have retained an “army” of at least 1,359 lobbyists to press for the extenders, Americans for Tax Justice reports.

Well, EUC benefits create and/or preserve jobs too. Failing to renew them will leave the labor market shy 240,000 jobs this year, according to White House economists.

Yet try as they might, leading Democrats, a not-so-well-paid army of advocates and jobless workers who aren’t getting paid at all can’t budge House Republicans, including the Ways and Means Committee majority, which has jurisdiction over EUC, as well as taxes.

A year-long EUC extension would have cost an estimated $25 billion — about 8% of the House Ways and Means extender package. And the committee still has a bunch of tax breaks to go.

 

 


Doing Our Bit for Defense

April 14, 2014

Having exhausted all possibilities for procrastination, I finally prepared my tax returns. Then I got a receipt from the National Priorities Project. You can too — and as I did, also get a receipt for the typical taxpayer in your state.

Here are some things I learned.

First off, District of Columbia filers paid, on average, $5,560 more than the average for taxpayers nationwide. The District’s average is, in fact, higher than the averages for all but one state — Connecticut.

This, of course, speaks to how very well the better-off households in the District are doing. How the less well-off are doing is a different story. It’s doubtful that those in the bottom 20% earned enough to owe any federal income tax this year.

But however much or little we owe, we pay the same portions for each and every item in the federal budget.

So about 27 cents of every dollar we pay goes to defense.* For the average D.C. taxpayer, this translates into $4,681, plus nearly $873 for veterans benefits, which NPP tabulates separately.

Skimming down the receipt, I see that this same taxpayer will contribute about $1,744 to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but only piddling amounts to other programs for low-income people. For example, s/he’ll chip in:

  • $42.07 for WIC  — probably about 60% of the cost of one month’s worth of the healthful foods supplement for one low-income mother or child in the District.
  • $23.36 for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — just a few dollars more than the cost of restoring SNAP (food stamp) benefits for one of D.C. household that receives them.
  • $106.24 for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — about 25% of the current maximum cash benefit for a D.C. family of three.
  • $215.87 for Pell grants and other student financial aid.

Now, the receipt doesn’t account in detail for all income tax dollars that support programs for low-income people. SNAP and free and reduced-price schools meals, for example, are included in the Food and Agriculture category, but not broken out.

And I haven’t cited above two the receipt itemizes that benefit low-income people, as well as others, i.e., job training and employment programs and the Community Development Block Grant.

But even adding them in still leaves the average D.C. taxpayer — and me — spending nearly 10 times as much on defense. I’m sure as can be that the federal budget could “provide for the common defense” with less.

That would leave more to patch the frayed safety net and to help more people achieve economic security without it. There’d be more to meet other essential needs too, e.g., protecting public health and safety, refurbishing our neglected infrastructure, enforcing civil rights and labor laws.

Perhaps not enough more, however. I, for one, would be willing to pay higher taxes — painful as that would seem at this time of year — if a larger share went to these priorities.

Congressman Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues in the House would instead cut my taxes — or so it seems. The Center for American Progress, among others, says they’d actually rise.

Whichever, the just-passed House budget plan will clearly shift more of our tax dollars into defense  — and drastically reduce our relatively small contributions to major safety net and other non-defense programs.

Obviously not a budget reflecting my priorities — or those of most of my fellow taxpayers either, according to the polling data NPP cites.

We’ve got to do more than grumble at tax time to get a budget we like.

* The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports a considerably lower figure. This is mainly because it includes Social Security and Medicare. NPP excludes spending from dedicated revenue streams like payroll taxes.

 

 


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