Not Just Kansas Anymore

April 26, 2017

Back in 2010, Kansas Governor Brownback and his Republican-controlled legislature initiated a “real-live experiment” in a particular brand of conservative economics. It blew up. And we, who don’t live in Kansas, may get hit by a much bigger explosion.

Experiment Blows Gaping Budget Holes

The Kansas Republicans eliminated income taxes for variously-structured small businesses. They also reduced income taxes for individual filers. This, Brownback said, would attract businesses, grow those there and create many thousands of jobs.

Well, Kansas, which must balance its budget every year, saw income taxes fall about $54 million short of projections — and then $333 million. Brownback filled the holes by shifting money from funds meant for special purposes..

Not enough. So Brownback cut funds for a range of programs, e.g., higher education, Medicaid, in-home services for seniors. And he tried to cut funding for K-12 education by $28 million — an action the Kansas Supreme Court found unconstitutional.

Why should we who don’t live in Kansas or have ties to anyone who does care? Because the Trump administration and leading Congressional Republicans have the same theory in mind for their tax cuts. And they’ll predictably trigger cuts in cuts in programs that benefit low-income people.

Faith in Theory Remains

A theory dating back to the mid-1970s, holds that tax cuts will stimulate so much economic growth that the additional revenues gained under the lower rates will offset the seeming losses, even reap more — because business will invest more, people work more, save and invest more.

It’s now commonly known as supply side economics — or pejoratively trickle down. Note how it favors tax cuts for corporations and well-off individuals, since lower-wage workers already have to earn as much as they can and have little or nothing left over to buy stocks and bonds.

Both the theory and some specific features of Brownback’s experiment underpin what the Trump administration and Congressional Republican leaders have in mind for their promised tax reform.

House Speaker Ryan’s Better Way tax reform plan includes large tax cuts on individuals’ investment income, lower tax rates for all businesses and an immediate, instead of a multi-year write-off on their investments.

The promise here is economic growth — in the labor force, productivity and wages. Though the cuts will be larger than “loopholes” and deductions eliminated, the package will, the plan says, be revenue-neutral, i.e. neither more nor less tax revenues collected.

Ryan cites a fairly recent House rule that requires the Joint Committee on Taxation to use dynamic scoring, rather than beginning with the current revenue baseline and then adding and subtracting estimated gains from increases and losses from cuts.

Last year’s concurrent budget resolution, i.e., the basic blueprint for budgets the House and Senate will develop, directed the Congressional Budget Office to do the same, insofar as it responsibly can.

No one with any basic economic smarts doubts that taxes have some effect on choices that affect growth. JCT and CBO factored these in their pre-dynamic scoring.

But the economists must build and use even more complex predictive models for dynamic scores. These — and so the results — can vary widely. But JCT and CBO  must deliver only one score, rather than a range, with explanations as they used to.

And now Trump’s Director of Office of Management and Budget says that both the budget and the administration’s tax reform proposal will reflect some dynamic scoring, but with a considerably higher growth rate than CBO’s.

The plan, he more recently said, ‘”will pay for itself” with growth — nearly $2 trillion over the first 10 years. The Tax Policy Center, on the other hand, estimates a $6.2 trillion loss in revenues, plus another trillion for interest on the mounting debt.

Devil Isn’t Only in Model Details

White House economists are still hammering out details of the tax reform plan, reportedly consulting with Congressional leaders — Republicans only, one infers.

Two things we know for sure. The business tax part will be “phenomenal” and the speaker, whom I trust need not be identified, believes the whole package “bigger than any tax cut ever.”

But what if, as in Kansas, it results in revenue losses? Edward Kleinbard, a former JCT chief of staff, thinks this likely — in part because the models assume that only individuals (and one assumes businesses) make productive investments. But government spending boosts growth too.

Less of that and the deficit will rise. The dynamic scoring partisans will push for deep cuts in investment programs and/or social insurance, he warns.

We know from experience that a rising deficit will prompt a wide range of cuts — both safety net and investments that give low-income people opportunities to earn more, e.g., by gaining more education and marketable skills, better public transportation, renovated neighborhoods that attract businesses.

These all give their children a better chance to do better too.

When Republicans balked at raising the debt ceiling in 2011, the Obama administration brokered a deal. Congress then passed the Budget Control Act — a two-part spending reduction measure.

We first had across-the-board cuts for both defense and non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, then caps on each, which Congress and the President later agreed to temporarily modify.

And look what’s happened.

As I’ve said before, programs generally need more funding just to sustain a steady state because costs rise — rent that housing vouchers subsidize, food and beverages that nutrition aid programs pay for* teaching materials, salaries and operating costs in public education programs, from pre-K through college, etc.

But funding for non-defense programs is now 16% lower in real dollars than in 2010. Title I funding targeted to high-poverty schools has remained basically flat, notwithstanding its current Every Child Succeeds Act name.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant — the largest source of federal subsidies for lower-income families serves fewer children in an average month than in any year since 1998, according to the latest official figures.

The Community Development Block Grant, which Trump wants to eliminate, lost $6 million last year alone. Local housing authorities are shy well over $26.5 billion needed to repair and/or renovate deteriorating public housing units merely to avoid further losses, estimated at 10,000 a year.

These are only examples I can readily recall in enough detail and find links for. We will surely have a plethora with those phenomenal tax cuts.

* Most nutrition assistance programs administered by the Agriculture Department must receive enough funding for everyone eligible. This is not true, however, for WIC or two programs that supply food directly, rather than as a cash-equivalent or a reimbursement.


What Do Our Federal Income Taxes Pay For?

April 24, 2017

We who didn’t request an extension (gloat) have filed our federal income tax returns. There’s a lot of chatter about where our taxpayer dollars go — even a Congressman who tells his constituents that they don’t pay his salary.

We do, of course. But more generally, what do we pay for? The National Priorities Project answers again this year. So I put what I owed into its online tool and converted the dollars into shares, since these would be the same for everyone.

Here’s what I learned.

The same shares would be true for everyone who owed income taxes. Only the actual dollars would differ.

The single largest share of my income taxes went for healthcare programs29%. About 80% of this helped pay for Medicaid and Medicare (one of its three funding streams).

Next largest share to the military — roughly 24%. Only about 20% of this went for personnel costs of any sort.

NPP also itemizes, for the interested, what the Pentagon pays for nuclear weapons and to Lockheed Martin, whose trouble-plagued F-35 fighter plane has cost us nearly $4 billion. An email from NPP tells me that we pay over six times more to Lockheed than what we spend on all foreign aid.

Third share went for interest on the debt — 13%. You may recall that Congressional Republicans used the government’s urgent need to borrow more so it could pay what it owed as a lever to force down spending through sequestration and the budget caps. And that they later actually shut down the government in hopes of defunding Obamacare.

Doubtful they’ll access their tax receipts. But the bill that simply suspended the debt ceiling expired a little over a month ago. And some are warning of another skirmish.

My fourth largest share paid for unemployment and labor programs — 7.5%, presumably everything federal agencies spend to get people into — or back into—the workforce.

This same share supports what the Labor Department contributes to unemployment insurance benefits when times are especially hard and the rules it issues and enforces to protect workers from workplace health hazards and wage theft. The latter now include updated overtime pay requirements, but may no longer, coming sometime next year.

Then veterans benefits — about 6%. This includes, among other things, payments veterans receive when they’re disabled while serving, the GI bill, home loans and pensions for low-income surviving spouses. Most of the rest of this share goes to the problem-riddled Veterans Health Administration.

Next come food and agriculture — nearly 5%. Here’s where we find, among other things, SNAP (the food stamp program) and the Agriculture Department’s other nutrition aid programs.

Also, in an altogether different mode, the subsidies Congress gives to farmers — mostly big agribusinesses — to cushion them against price drops, insure them against other business risks and more.

Government next — 4.2%. NPP breaks out only three pieces, all enforcement — and two clearly aimed at ramped-up actions against undocumented immigrants and would-be’s.

But we’ve got to assume, I think, that this line item includes spending for all non-military personnel and activities, including Congress members’ salaries — $174,000 this year, plus benefits.

Transportation gets a 3.2% share. Everything the Transportation Department does gets some share of this share. including controlling air traffic and, as all flyers know, vigilantly trying to keep us from hijacking or blowing up planes.

Education gets a 2.8% share, according to NPP’s analysis. I’d put it at 3.2% because NPP classifies Head Start and related programs as community spending.

It’s true that Head Start and Early Head Start for younger kids do more than ready them for kindergarten, e.g. screen them for health and developmental problems, link families to needed services. But their primary aim is starting low-income children off on as level a playing field as possible.

Wherever you put it, Head Start’s share is far from the largest NPP breaks out. That distinction goes to Pell grants, work-study and other forms of federal aid for lower-income college students. These rolled together receive a larger share than federal aid to elementary and secondary schools — 35 %, as compared to 27%.

And I’d be remiss not to note that the National Endowment for the Arts, which Trump wants to eliminate, gets less than .002% of education’s share, as NPP calculates it — and roughly a tenth of that for everything our federal government uses our income tax dollars for.

Shifting Head Start and EHS, as I have, leaves housing and community with a 1.7%, rather than a 2.1% share.

Here we have everything the Department of Housing and Urban Development spends to help make housing affordable for lower-income people, shelter and temporarily house those who are homeless and make lower-income neighborhoods better places to live, e.g., by attracting businesses and thus job opportunities, providing needed services.

The money goes to local communities as grants. The largest of these is the Community Development Block Grant — another program on the Trump hit list because it’s “not well-targeted to the poorest populations and “has not demonstrated results.”

Followers already know what I — and many others — think of that line of argument.

Energy and environment get a 1.6% share of our income taxes. Seems it’s likely to shrink to an even smaller fraction, what with Trump’s seeking a 31% cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, crippling its ability to fulfill its legal responsibilities for protecting us from range of environmental health hazards, including climate change.

Lastly, we have, in rank order international affairs and science. These together get about 2.8% of the total.

Say you don’t like the way the budget apportions your federal income tax dollars. NPP has a tool that lets you reallocate them — and gives you trade-offs.

These are mostly shifts from the $528.5 billion Defense Department budget, which NPP has long viewed as excessive. Interesting to see what even small nicks could do for lower-income people.


DC Mayor Bowser Won’t Halt Triggered Tax Cuts to Gain Needed Funding

April 13, 2017

Just finished my annual dialogue with my tax preparation software. So as always, my thoughts turn to the tax laws that determine what I have to pay. A sweeping federal tax reform is much in the news. And I’ll probably have things to say about that.

But I’ll start with the automatically triggered tax cuts Mayor Bowser has decided to let alone in her proposed budget, styled “DC Values in Action: A Roadmap to Inclusive Prosperity.”

These because they don’t hinge on new legislation. And they push down spending because the District, like most states must balance its budget every year.

As you may know, the triggered tax cuts reflect recommendations made by the Tax Revision Commission in 2014. It didn’t recommend triggering them whenever a certain revenue projection exceeded the version the budget was built on.

That was the work of DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who folded them, ranked according to his preferences into the final version of the legislative package that accompanied the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

A last minute thing. Other Councilmembers had no chance to consider them — perhaps didn’t even know they were there.

The triggered tax cuts have already reduced revenues by $102 million — none a one-time loss. The rest will all kick next fiscal year, unless the Council decides to instead recoup about $100 million.

Some of the cuts, would benefit lower and moderate-income residents, though not those with incomes so low they already don’t owe income taxes, once they’ve taken all now allowable exemptions, credits and the like. Nor, of course, those who’ve no taxable income at all.

These cuts include a further increase in the standard deduction, which a very large percent of DC filers with incomes less than $75,000 choose because they don’t have more costly specific deductions like interest on a mortgage or real property taxes high out-of-pocket medical expenses. (The District relies on the federal government’s Schedule A for these.)

The other of this sort is a multi-part increase in the personal exemption, which applies to all filers and their dependents, except apparently those whose incomes exceed $275,000.

But the surplus also triggers a second increase in the threshold for the estate tax, bringing it to $5.49 million if left by an individual and twice that for a married couple — the same as in federal law.*

Why the District should aim to mirror a tax giveaway to heirs of the very most prosperous that Congressional Republicans insisted on as part of the deal that pulled us back from the fiscal cliff is a mystery.

Additional cuts in the business franchise tax, coupled with a further cut in the business income tax are, at the very least questionable.

Sure, we want profit-making businesses in the city — a source of jobs, among other things. But a recent survey indicates that the taxes they must pay are a relatively minor factor in their decisions on whether to locate here or elsewhere.

Topping the list is the ready availability of workers with the knowledge and/or skills they need. One could do a lot to help residents qualify for and get jobs with the potential loss of $35.7 million.

Advocacy organizations of various sorts have already flagged a wide range of shortfalls in the Mayor’s proposed budget. We’ll have a fuller accounting from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute fairly soon — and undoubtedly more from other concerned nonprofits too.

I’d thought to cite examples, based on the Mayor’s prosperity promise and my own topmost concerns. But even summaries made this post far longer than my somewhat flexible maxim. So I’ll return to them shortly.

Yet I don’t want to leave the impression that the Mayor’s budget shortchanges her low-income constituents in every way.

The most significant example of how it would benefit them is the funding she proposes to begin the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families time limit reforms recommended by diverse working group the Department of Human Services convened.

This will not only save roughly 6,500 families from losing all their benefits when the new fiscal year begins — and more as time goes on.

It will preserve those benefits for all children and all parents who’re meeting their work preparation and/or job requirements until they’ve found jobs or otherwise gained enough income to put them over the eligibility cut-off.

Cash benefits being as low as they are — and will be — the initiative in and of itself hardly shares the non-inclusive prosperity reflected in the District’s tax revenues. But it does save very poor families from the most dire poverty.

And the non-cash benefits — free training and, in some cases, formal education, no-cost child care and transportation — give parents a chance to move from welfare to decent-paying work and, in the process, improve their children’s future prospects.

* The thresholds were somewhat lower when the Council adopted the triggers, but the legislation refers to raising the threshold “to conform to the federal level.” And the federal level rises with the inflation rate.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Mayor’s budget doesn’t altogether reflect the working group’s recommendations. They would significantly protect children if their parents had their benefits cut for not complying with their work requirements by allocating 80% of the family grant to them.

The Mayor would split the grant 50-50. As a practical matter, this might not make much difference. The parents will have the same amount to spend, and it will surely go for the same basic needs. We will need to see how the Mayor justifies her split, assuming she or a Department of Human Services official is asked.


Clinton Unveils Anti-Poverty Reforms to Child Tax Credit

October 17, 2016

Clinton firmed up her agenda for children and families last week with a plan to reform the Child Tax Credit. Her announcement headlines it as a “middle class tax cut,” but it would deliver needed income support to poor and near-poor families with children, especially the very young.

We can see that Clinton attends to progressive advocates and members of Congress who attend to them. Basically, she’s borrowed from bills previously introduced in Congress, which borrowed from a proposal by the Center for American Progress.

They all would make the CTC available to working parents who can’t claim it now and deliver the greatest benefits to those with children in their early years.

CAP argues that those families’ needs are greatest — a combination of relatively low earnings, student debt and the costs of necessary things for babies, e.g., cribs, diapers.

One might add the costs of child care, which are extraordinarily high for infants and toddlers. They’re probably a bigger stretch for parents who’ve no student debt because they, at best, finished high school.

Low earnings alone surely justify the inclusion of a more robust CTC in an anti-poverty agenda — optimally, one that would boost the credit for all minor-age children.

The poverty rate for children under six was 17.3% last year, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. But it was 15.6% for older children. Their parents would fare better under Clinton’s plan too, though not as much better.

Her plan would do three major things. First, it would make the CTC available from the first dollar earned, rather than the first after $3,000 — a change that progressives have advocated for years.

Second, it would selectively increase the rate at which the CTC phases in. It’s now 15% of earnings over the threshold to claim it, up to a $1,000 per child maximum. Clinton would triple the rate for children under five.

And third, she’d double the maximum parents could claim for those kids.

So, for example, a single mother who has an infant and a toddler and works full time at the federal minimum wage would get $4,000, instead of about $1,800, i.e., less than the current full credit for the kids.

Now, the CTC, as you may know, is a refundable credit, like the heftier Earned Income Tax Credit. So if a parent owes less than zero when she claims it, plus deductions and the EITC, she gets a check (or the equivalent) from the Internal Revenue Service.

The refunds help account for the credit’s anti-poverty impact — and its potential. The CTC lifted about 3.1 million people, including some 1.7 million children over the poverty threshold in 2013, the Center on Budget reports.

An additional 13.7 million, including about 6.8 million children were less poor than they’d have otherwise been.

Clinton’s proposals would lift about 1.5 million more people out of poverty, the Center estimates. This figure includes roughly 400,000 children under five.

And about 5.2 million people, including 1.1 million young children in deep poverty, i.e., at or below half the applicable threshold, would also gain income. Still poor, but less so.

Not only poor families would benefit. Eligibility for the CTC would apparently plateau at the same maximum adjusted gross income and then phase out at the rate current law sets.

So a single parent with two children could get some tax reduction until her income exceeded about $115,000. A cut-off about $45,000 higher if she married and filed jointly.

The CTC, however, benefits primarily lower and moderate-income working families. It still would. But the Center for Tax Justice finds that eliminating the threshold and tripling the phase-in rate would deliver the greatest benefits to families in the bottom fifth.

The Center on Budget’s analysis indicates a tilt toward families way down in that fifth. About 77% of the people the CTC expansions would benefit are poor, according to its estimates.

The reforms would cost the federal government an estimated $208.7 billion over the first 10 years, if they became law this year, which, of course, they won’t.

The revenue losses would be a miniscule fraction of the federal budget, which was somewhere around $3.9 trillion for just last fiscal year.

And Clinton’s total tax plan would offset the CTC reforms many times over. The Tax Policy Center estimates revenue gains at about $1.4 trillion over the same 10 years its CTC estimate covers. More than 90% of the increase would come from the very wealthiest households.

So we’re highly unlikely to see the whole package pass in the next Congress. But say — oh, let’s say — that Clinton becomes our next President.

Might we see the CTC expansions or something like? Dylan Matthews at Vox thinks not, unless the Democrats win a majority in the House. Jordan Weissman at Slate views all Clinton’s tax proposals as DOA unless Democrats gain control of the Senate too.

I’m inclined to feel more hopeful. Democrats got the current CTC threshold converted from temporary (and expiring) to permanent as part of a big, urgently-needed budget deal.

That won’t be the last near-crisis because Congress tends to put off politically difficult decisions until the last minute. And a whole lot of decisions have become politically difficult as rifts within, as well as between the parties have grown.

Grasping at straws, it may seem. But I do think the CTC expansions have a chance. And I hope that when an actual bill emerges, they provide more relief for families with older children, as Clinton suggests they might.

 


Lots of Progressive Ideas for Strengthening Working Family Tax Credits

July 28, 2016

The Child Tax Credit today is a more effective anti-poverty measure than it was before the Recovery Act made more parents eligible to claim it. But it’s still got limits that make it less effective than it could be, even given the practical constraints of public policy reforms.

My last post summarized the limits and a pair of Republican proposals for boosting the credit. Here, as promised, are proposals from more progressive quarters, plus a couple that go at child-raising costs through a different tax credit.

The Democratic party platform supports expanding the CTC, either by making more of it refundable or by indexing it so that it won’t continue losing real-dollar value. The latter presumably refers to the maximum parents can claim — frozen at $1,000 per child since 2001 and thus worth about a third less.

Democrats in Congress have proposed more ambitious reforms. Colorado Senator Michael Bennett introduced a bill last year that’s, to my knowledge, the most ambitious.

It would eliminate the $3,000 earned income threshold for claiming the credit and index the credit to inflation, making it, in both respects, like the Earned Income Tax Credit. It would also triple the value of the credit for children under six.

These reforms borrow from recommendations by the Center for American Progress. CAP, however, would restrict the more ample credit to children under three and boost it less.

The boost,  it says, will help families “when their needs are greatest.” A two-pronged rationale for this. First, parents are in the early stages of their careers and perhaps saddled with student loan debt.

Second, they’re suddenly faced with substantial new expenses, e.g., diapers, cribs, car seats. Perhaps also, though unmentioned, with the inordinately high cost of childcare for infants and toddlers — on average, $11,666 a year nationwide for those in centers.

More recently, Congressmember Rosa DeLauro and two cosponsors introduced a bill that also adopts some of CAP’s recommendations. It would provide the same boost — one-and-a-half times the regular CTC to parents with children under three.

And they’d receive it as a sort of cash allowance, paid monthly or as often as the Treasury Department deemed feasible. So they’d have the extra money when they needed it, rather than a lump sum once a year.

A broader anti-poverty bill just introduced by Senators Cory Booker and Tammy Baldwin would also index the CTC. It would make the tax credit fully refundable for all families, while targeting it the poorest. We’ll need to await a posting to learn the details.

Clinton herself has focused on childcare costs. She’d cap them at 10% of a family’s income through some combination of expanded subsidies and tax credits.

Wonkblogger Danielle Paquette thinks she’ll probably look to CAP’s recommendations for the latter. Perhaps, but a beefed-up Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit would seem a more targeted approach.

And Clinton can look to an advocacy organization for it too — the one she worked for as a new law school graduate.

Almost a year and a half ago, the Children’s Defense Fund proposed a multi-part plan for cutting the child poverty rate by 60%, without increasing the deficit, even briefly.

The Fund did propose making the CTC fully refundable, rather than keeping it capped at 15% of earned income over the threshold for claiming it. But it also proposed two expansions of the CDCTC.

One would increase the percent of care costs the credit offsets — for lower-income families only. The credit would phase down gradually, from 50% for the very lowest-income.

The other change would make the credit fully refundable for families regardless of income. It’s now only a way to reduce tax liabilities, not a potential source of extra income like the CTC and EITC.

A bill introduced only weeks ago by Congressmember Katherine Clark seems to borrow from this recommendation and from one of CAP’s — maybe by way of the DeLauro bill.

It too would provide monthly payments. But they’d serve as childcare subsidies and go directly to centers and home-based providers where eligible parents had their kids enrolled, though again only if quite young.

The credits would be higher for the youngest and also for low-income families. But even the better-off would get something if their adjusted gross incomes didn’t exceed 400% of the federal poverty line — $80,640 for a three-person family this year.

The credits would become refundable, even though the monthly payments would bypass parents. I don’t understand how this would work, not for want of asking Clark’s staff.

Stepping back out of the weeds, we can see that the next Congress and President will have no shortage of ideas for using tax credits to defray a greater share of the costs of child-raising — or at the very least, the costs of having some non-family member care for them part of the time.

Whether policymakers should focus strictly on very young children is an open question, CAP’s rationale notwithstanding. Working parents often need child care for their school-age children, though for fewer hours.

And those children have many other needs, of course — a case for making the CTC a more substantive help for low-income parents, as the Defense Fund proposes. That alone would reduce the child poverty rate by 12%, according to estimates the Urban Institute supplied.

On the other hand, we know that the experiences children have in their earliest years have singularly lasting consequences. The hardships and other stresses of poverty, for example, can impair normal brain development.

Conversely, high-quality early education has well-documented benefits, especially for low-income children, whose parents often have neither the time nor money to provide those enriching experiences that prepare children to do well in school and thereafter.

It all, I suppose, boils down to how much our country is willing to invest in the next generation. We know how we could invest more, with high returns. But we’ve known that for a long time. So it’s not lack of knowledge that’s stymied action, but lack of bipartisan political will.

 

 

 

 


Child Tax Credit Lifts Kids Out of Poverty, But Too Limited for Big Impact

July 25, 2016

Children are the single poorest age group in our country. More than one in five live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s latest report based on its official measure. The better measure still shows a 16.7% child poverty rate.

What these rates tell us, among other things, is that a great many parents don’t have enough money to pay for even their children’s basic needs. Nor their own, since the measures reflect household income.

We don’t have a good fix on how much they’d need. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does, however, provide rough estimates, based on a survey of what parents actually spend. Unfortunately, we get only a crude family income breakout — all families below $61,530 lumped together.

That said, USDA reports that the costs of raising a child from birth to age 18 totaled $164,160 three years ago for a single parent with one child in the lowest income bracket. Costs mount as children grow up — the total, of course, but also by their age.

Infants, on average, cost the least. But even they set low and moderate-income single parents back an estimated $10,436 in their first year. A single mother who worked full time, year round at the federal minimum wage would have only about $3,700 of her take-home pay left for all other expenses.

We do, of course, have publicly-funded programs to supplement what parents can afford to spend out of their own earnings, if any. Some are uniquely for children — the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for example, WIC and pre-college public education. Far more include both them and adults in the household.

Rolling the two kinds together, First Focus reports that this year’s federal children’s budget accounts for 7.83% of total spending — this after factoring out parents’ share of safety net benefits like SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance.

So we’re investing relatively little in the well-being and future prospects of the next generation. No news here, though the fact that children’s share of spending has shrunk since 2010 may be. It wasn’t all that big a share then, however — just 8.45%.

What the First Focus analysis doesn’t capture is federal spending through the tax code, rather than annual budgets. The Urban Institute’s Kids Share analyses do.

The latest puts total federal spending on children at 10% of the 2014 total — roughly $463 billion. Two-fifths of that reflects tax deductions and credits for families with children.

Drilling down further, we find $53.6 billion in refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit, i.e., money parents receive when the credit they’re entitled to, plus other gross income adjustments exceeds what they owe.

The refundable part of the Child Tax Credit was less than half that — $21.5 billion. And unlike the EITC, it was less than paid out in 2013.

The refundable tax credits together lifted roughly 10.6 million people, including 5.6 million children over the poverty threshold and made significantly more less poor than they would otherwise have been.

But clearly the EITC did most of the lifting, accounting for all but 1.7 million of the not-poor, but still low-income children. Several major reasons for this.

First off, not all parents with earned income can claim the refundable CTC. They have to have made at least $3,000 during the year, either together, if they file jointly, or alone if they’re single. The EITC, by contrast, kicks in at the first dollar of earned income.

Second, the tax credit for most working parents is capped at $1,000 per child. (No credit — and thus no potential refund — for very high-earners, who won’t concern us here.) Third, another cap limits per-child refunds to 15% of earned income above the threshold for claiming it.

These several constraints mean considerably lower tax benefits. A single parent with one child, for example, could receive $3,359 from the EITC this year. And the benefit is annually adjusted to keep pace with inflation, while the CTC isn’t.

Political leaders of various stripes have teed up proposals for boosting the CTC. Then-Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, for example, included a $2,500 supplement to the current maximum in his tax plan.

That, said the Center for American Progress, among others, would have benefited higher-income families, while failing to protect low-income families from losing all or part of their benefits, as they would have if Congress hadn’t subsequently made the Recovery Act improvements permanent.

The House Republicans’ tax plan calls for increasing the CTC to $1,500 (presumably per child) and raising the maximum income eligibility for married couples.

The refundable part would still be capped at $1,000, however. And filers without Social Security numbers couldn’t claim it — a not-so-subtle attack on undocumented workers and their children that Republicans have repeatedly made.

Though the plan may seem more friendly to other parents with children, it actually isn’t because it would eliminate the exemption for children — $4,000 per child this year, except for very high-earners. So what the right hand giveth, the far-right hand taketh away.

Democrats have also seized on the CTC as an opportunity to strengthen support for working families. We’ve got several proposals languishing in Congress now. And we may see the issue develop in the last round of this seemingly endless Presidential campaign.

Too much for me to cover here. So I’ll reserve the more progressive approaches for a separate post. Will just note here that making child raising costs more affordable seems to have gained traction over the last several years.

Whether we’ll actually see tax credit changes will, like so many things, depend on what happens in November. Now, if poor and near-poor children could vote ….

 

 


Not Enough Money for Low-Income DC Residents, But Tax Cut for Wealthy Unchanged

May 26, 2016

As you local readers probably know, the DC Council passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year last week. Some changes in what the Mayor had proposed for programs that serve low-income residents.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s overview of the budget confirms what I’d expected. Mostly, a bit more here, a bit more there. No more for some critical priorities. And less for at least one. (The one large, new investment it cites — for new family shelters — isn’t part of the budget proper.)

I suppose we’ll be told that the Council did its best with what it had to work with. I don’t know because I don’t know nearly enough about the funding needs and prospective impacts of every program and service the budget covers.

But I do know that the Council could have had more revenues to work with. It had only to postpone — or better yet, repeal — the tax cuts prior legislation has made automatic whenever revenues rise above the estimate used for the latest budget.

The triggers have already reduced otherwise available revenues by many millions of dollars — dollars the Council could have used to shore up under-funded programs.

So much water under the bridge. And as the Chairman, who likes those triggers says, the revenues lost from cuts not yet triggered couldn’t have been used for the new budget. But the Council could have had them to spend as early as next fiscal year — and thereafter.

All tax cuts are not created equal, of course. Some on the pending list will benefit residents who’ve got enough income to owe taxes, but not a lot.

The second cut on that list, however, is a higher threshold for the estate tax. The most recent revenue forecast indicates that it will lock in soon, DCFPI’s latest account of the trigger impacts says.

So henceforth, no assets a deceased resident leaves to heirs will be taxable until they’re worth $2 million — twice the current minimum.

As things stand now, this will be the first of two estate tax cuts. The second — and considerably larger — will raise the threshold to the same minimum as applies to the federal estate tax, currently $5.45 million.

Why the District should embrace a regressive measure gained in a crisis by Congressional Republicans who could never be elected here baffles me.

True, the Tax Revision Commission recommended parity with the federal threshold, including the ongoing upward adjustments for inflation. But the Council could have taken a pass, just as it has on the revenue-raisers in the Commission’s package.

The District will forfeit $18.8 million next fiscal year alone, according to DCFPI’s estimate. And for what?

Not so that more money can pass to charities tax free. Bequests to them are already exempt. Not so that surviving spouses will have more to live on, since what passes directly to them will also still reduce the value of what counts toward the threshold.

Not even necessarily what other heirs wind up with, since a will-maker can give them as much as $14,000* each or the equivalent every year while still alive — again reducing the value of what’s potentially taxable afterwards.

The estate tax giveaway won’t just make larger investments in programs that reduce hardships for poor and near-poor residents unnecessarily difficult. It will increase income inequality in the District by giving the rich more, as well as denying the poor supports and services that help close the income gap from the bottom.

And the gap will grow from one generation to the next in part because of the way the taxable value of assets is determined. Essentially, it’s set at their value when the person bequeathing them dies.

So heirs pay capital gains taxes when they sell the assets for more, but no tax on how much the assets’ value increased between the time they were purchased and the time inherited.

And, of course, heirs don’t have to sell them. They can pass them along to their heirs, compounding the revenue loss — and wealth at the top of the income scale.

The estate tax then is a way of partly recouping the loss and, at the same time, averting a rollback to the inordinate wealth concentration of the Robber Baron days.

The higher the threshold, the less an already-shaky control on income inequality can do. And the gap between the richest and poorest District households is already very large — larger, indeed, than the DCFPI analysis I’m linking to shows because it doesn’t drill down to the top 1%.

Their incomes averaged well over $1.9 million in 2012, the latest year I’ve found figures for. This, recall, is income for a single year, not also what could readily be converted to income.

Now, no one — not even Bernie Sanders — is talking about taking so much from the rich and giving it to the rest that incomes would be equal. Nor is anyone talking about taking all the wealth the rich have accumulated when they die.

The major focus — and DCFPI’s recommendations reflect it — is reducing the gap by lifting incomes at the bottom and making those incomes more sufficient for basic needs, e.g., by ramping up investments in housing they can afford.

Not all income-lifting measures would require the District to spend more public funds. But some surely will, including workforce development and (you knew I was going to go here) reforms in the rigid Temporary Assistance for Needy Families time limit policy.

Leaving the estate tax threshold where it is won’t give the District as much more tax revenue as it needs. But the giveaway isn’t chump change either.

And it’s got nothing going for it, except a hugely successful and duplicitous PR campaign. Surely Councilmembers know better. And I’d like to think their donors not only know better, but want better for our community.

* This is the current threshold for the federal gift tax, which will rise over time to keep pace with inflation. The District has no gift tax.