Why Most Taxpayers Feel They Pay Their Fair Share, But That Others Don’t

April 11, 2016

I’ve just finished a multi-day dialogue with my tax software. As always, I’m grouchy when I get to this point. So, as always, I’m ready to vent.

This year, I was ready even before I’d started keying in figures, shuffling through bills and 1099s, etc., thanks to an action alert from Americans for Tax Fairness.

And it’s fairness that’s on my mind, as I consider what I owe, what I might have, but for some advantages and advantages that only others enjoy.

Corporate Dodges and Intended Breaks

Americans for Tax Fairness seized on what, for obvious reasons, it calls a tax dodge. Seems that Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, planned to evade an estimated $35 billion in U.S. taxes owed on profits it’s made overseas.

You may have read about the maneuver — a so-called inversion. A new rule has apparently queered it. But the dozens that are already done deals have enabled corporations to shift profits to others in low-tax countries and then borrow or lend them as if they weren’t gained here.

Many American corporations shield profits they’ve made in this country from taxes without fictitiously relocating. They instead attribute them to subsidiaries — often merely mailing addresses — in jurisdictions that impose little or no tax. The tax havens enable them to collectively avoid an estimated $90 billion a year in federal income taxes.

Last year, we individual filers, who can’t engage in such maneuvers, paid somewhat over $1.5 trillion in income taxes. Corporations paid about 22% as much.

It’s not only the maneuvers that account for their seemingly skimpy share. They can claim diverse tax credits, exclusions and, in some cases, speedier write-offs to reduce their tax liabilities. Fingerprints of special interests all over some of these, as I’ve noted before.

What the American Public Says

No one likes paying taxes, of course. But most of us aren’t much troubled by what we have to pay, according to a Pew Research Center survey. A majority of us, however, are bothered “a lot” by the feeling that some corporations don’t pay their fair share. Nor wealthy individuals.

Tax fairness is in the eyes of the beholder, I suppose. But it’s hard to view our tax system as fair. What those with plenty of money don’t pay, the rest of us must — or live without what the tax revenues could pay for.

Some of both, it seems, since we all endure under-funded transportation systems, lapses in agency enforcement of environmental rules and the like.

And many of us have major concerns about insufficient funding for a host of programs that serve needs we may not have ourselves, e.g., high quality education for disadvantaged students, childcare subsidies, food assistance and other safety net benefits.

Tilt Toward Well-Off Individuals

It’s not only loopholes and preferences deliberately built into the corporate tax system that rankle us. As I indicated, most of us also feel that the individual tax system lets other people pay less than their fair share.

Forty-two percent of the Americans Pew surveyed feel that at least some poor people don’t pay enough. Far more feel that wealthy people don’t pay as much as they should. Very few — only 4% — put themselves in this category, it seems, suggesting the rest of us aren’t bothered by tax breaks that benefit us.

What seems beyond question is that the system is structured to reward certain choices of how to spend and how to get money — choices that far from all of us have.

On the spending side, we’ve got the mortgage interest deduction — the second largest preference in the individual tax code. The federal government will forfeit roughly $77 billion this year so that people can purchase homes — not just one per individual or family, but two, including a yacht.

The benefit to higher-income households, combined with the property tax deduction is, on average, more than four times greater than what the federal government spends to subsidize housing for low-income people.

On the getting side, we’ve got the lower tax rate on income gained by selling stocks and other assets, including those extra homes that qualified for the mortgage interest deduction. Same lower rate on dividends from stocks held for more than a couple of months.

No tax at all on money socked away in special savings accounts for college tuition and related expenses or healthcare costs insurance doesn’t cover. Justifiable as these breaks may be, they don’t benefit people people who need every penny they’ve got to keep food on the table, a roof over their heads, etc.

By and large, low-income filers get few tax breaks — and only if they’re both working and raising children. The largest of these preferences — the Earned Income Tax Credit — can actually increase income (not taxable).

But it does little for workers who don’t have children they’re supporting in their homes for most of the year. So little that the lowest-paid are taxed into poverty — or deeper poverty — because their credit doesn’t even offset what’s deducted in payroll taxes.

These, however, are only workers with Social Security numbers. The EITC does nothing at all for those who don’t have legal authority to work in this country, but dutifully pay taxes on what they’ve earned.

Now these are all preferences (or the opposite) deliberately built into the tax code. We’ve also got at least one gaping loophole — a provision that allows hedge fund managers to pay the capital gains rate on compensation they receive for doing their job.

They collectively save an estimated $18 billion a year. Here too, we pay that much more or lose what those billions would pay for.

Consensus Only on Need for Fairer Taxes

Everybody from left to right agrees that the federal tax code is ripe for reform. No consensus on what a fair system would be, however, as plans Presidential candidates have floated show.

We all, I think, can see how some of those plans would make the system less fair. But I, for one, couldn’t spell out what a fair tax code would look like.

I’m pretty sure that I’d pay more because, animadversions notwithstanding, I claimed all the deductions I could and paid the lower capital gains/qualified dividends rate.

No way to waive that rate. But I could donate the savings to the federal government. I’ll just stick with charities and, feeling somewhat hypocritical, deduction my donations again next year.

 


Hope for Bipartisan Reform of the EITC for “Childless” Workers?

February 25, 2016

Far be it from me to discount bipartisanship. It would be nice to see some at the federal level — on issues that would help poor and near-poor people, among others.

But I’m not as hopeful as some kindred spirits that proposals in the President’s budget could get Republican leaders in Congress on board — notably House Speaker Paul Ryan.

He’s floated a plan for “expanding opportunity in America” — specifically, for Americans stuck on the bottom rung of the income ladder. It proposes, among other things, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers.

The hopefuls see a chance for bipartisanship here. And perhaps there is. Conservatives, after all, want low-income people to work. And the EITC is said to reward work because it provides a tax credit for some variable amount of income earned by working.

It doesn’t, however, truly reward work for childless wage earners. Nor for those who have children, but not living with them for most of the year. Nor for young workers, childless or otherwise.

Together, they’re the only group our federal system taxes into poverty or — and more often — deeper poverty, as a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis shows.

How the EITC Works

The EITC reduces what many, but not all workers owe in income taxes. If they owe less than zero when they claim the credit, they get a refund.

For all eligible workers, the credit kicks in with the first dollar earned. It then rises by a set percent of earnings until a reaches a certain dollar value, cruises there for awhile and then declines, by a set percent, until it reaches zero.

Both the percents and the maximum dollar value depend on whether the filer has children in the home and, if so, how many. The tax structure also favors married couples over singles, but only in the phase-out if they’re childless.

The maximum credit for both is a mere $506. And singles get no credit at all when their countable income is less than what a full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage pays.

What the President (Again) Proposes

The President’s proposal would expand the EITC in several ways. First, it would change the minimum and maximum ages for claiming it.

At this point, “childless” workers don’t become eligible until they’re 25 years old. And they lose eligibility when they’re over 64, even though many remain in the workforce longer, if they can — especially now that they can no longer get full Social Security retirement benefits until they’re older.

The President would make the eligible age range 21 to 67, the age when workers born in 1960 or thereafter will reach Social Security’s full retirement age — unless forces for so-called entitlement reform succeed in boosting it again.

He would also double the phase-in rate, i.e., the percent of earned income that translates into a larger credit. The maximum credit a worker could claim would almost double. And a worker could get it for longer because the phase-out rate would match the phase-in.

About 13.2 million low-income workers would benefit — both those newly eligible and those eligible now.

What Could Stymie Bipartisan Reform

The structure Ryan proposes for “childless” workers mirrors the President’s. And he too would drop the minimum eligibility age to 21. He’d leave the maximum age the same, but that seems readily negotiable.

What won’t be is the pay-for, i.e., the offsets that will prevent the losses in tax revenues from increasing the deficit.

The new proposed budget doesn’t say specifically what other proposal(s) would offset the losses. We do, however, see various tax reforms that would more than offset them, as well as help pay for direct spending initiatives.

In fact, closing just one tax loophole high-earning individuals can — and apparently do — use to legally game the system would raise more than four times the cost of the expansion. The President’s economists cited this loophole-closer as an EITC expansion pay-for last year.

Ryan’s opportunity plan specifies pay-fors too — all spending cuts. He expressly rejects raising taxes — even, one infers, by closing unintended loopholes.

He’d eliminate what he calls — perhaps rightly, in some cases — instances of “corporate welfare.” But he’d pay for the EITC expansion mainly by ending “programs that don’t work” — and reducing “fraud” in the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit.

Programs he’d eliminate include the Social Services Block Grant and two small programs that aim to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the diets of young children.

Now, the Social Services Block Grant is challenging to defend with the “hard evidence” Ryan wants — ironically, for reasons that should appeal to him and his Republican colleagues. First off, it’s a block grant — and like most others, under-funded, in part because it’s had no increase for many years.

But the main reason it’s hard to defend — and should appeal — is that it offers states lots of flexibility. So they can invest a bit of money here, a bit there, supplementing their own funds and tapping funds from other federal sources.

How then to prove the effectiveness of SSBG in, for example, providing child care so that parents can work, reducing senior hunger, protecting children and adults with disabilities from abuse, etc.?

Does this mean the program doesn’t work? Of course, not. Nor would what Ryan proposes for the Child Tax Credit prevent costly fraud.

It’s instead what’s sadly familiar by now — requiring parents who claim it to have Social Security numbers. This would deny refunds to low-income undocumented workers — and indirectly, their children, most of whom are U.S. citizens, as if that should matter to someone who professes concern for poverty in America.

Why Bipartisan Reform Only Doubtful, Not Hopeless

It’s not only the specific offsets Ryan proposes, but his whole approach that casts doubt on a bipartisan bill — and subsequent vote — to make work pay for so-called childless adults.

But who knows? A majority of House Republicans and enough in the Senate did agree to a budget deal that converted the time-limited EITC and Child Tax Credit improvements in the Recovery Act to permanent law.

Give them enough of what they want, swallow enough of what you don’t but can live with and we could have a fairer EITC. A lower poverty rate too. Hopes, needless to say, contingent on the results of the upcoming elections.


Congress Does Another Pretty Good Thing

December 21, 2015

No, I’m not referring to the budget Congress just passed. Better than a government shutdown, of course — or what we would have had if Congress hadn’t lifted the spending caps. But more a relief from what could have been than a pretty good thing.

It’s rather the package that will extend expiring tax breaks — most, as usual, with a new end date, but some permanently, i.e., unless and until Congress repeals or changes them.

Many converted from nominally temporary to permanent will benefit businesses or well-off individuals. But poor and near-poor families will also benefit because the improved Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit become as permanent as the rest.

Here, briefly, is what this means as a practical matter — and, also briefly, why the bill isn’t plain good, but probably as good as it could be under the circumstances.

More Spendable Income for Working Families

The Recovery Act made two changes in the EITC that benefit working families. It reduced the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the lower benefit some married couples receive when both have earned income. And it added a higher benefit for those with three or more children.

The Recovery Act also reduced the minimum wage income required to claim the refundable part of the CTC from what was then $12,500 to $3,000, enabling many more low-income parents to get a modest budget boost at tax time.

All these improvements would have expired in 2017. Some 16.4 million people would have fallen into poverty or deeper poverty — mostly the latter, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ latest estimates.

And results would have worsened in future years because the former permanent law linked the threshold for claiming the CTC to consumer price inflation.

Urgent Though Not Expiring at Year’s End

One might think that Congress could have waited to deal with the improvements — as it tends to do with extenders. But excluding them from the package would have made preserving them later much tougher.

Because the more tax breaks made permanent, the greater the chance that the improvements would have hung out there alone. Republicans would then have insisted they be fully paid for, i.e., offset by spending cuts or revenue raisers.

But they wouldn’t go for the latter. So they could have forced a choice between a rollback to the pre-improved tax credits and spending cuts.

This might not have proved the only hurdle. As a recent letter from major advocacy organizations warned, the improvements could “essentially be held hostage for other deleterious policy changes.”

Anyone who’s been reading about the policy riders Republicans tried to hang onto the budget bill has some notion of how supporters of the improvements might find those changes too high a price to pay.

Downside for Some Immigrant Families

To no one’s surprise, the anti-immigrant sentiment among some Republicans infiltrated the tax bill negotiations.

One proposal, resurrected repeatedly since 2012, would have denied the refundable CTC to parents who file tax returns using an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identifications Number) — the alternative to a Social Security number that undocumented immigrants, among others must used to comply with their legal obligations.

That would have ended the annual income supplement that helps with the costs of raising more than 5 million children — as many as 4.5 million of them citizens, if that matters, as I think it shouldn’t.

At least two other proposals sought to prevent undocumented immigrants from claiming either one or both of the refundable tax credits. Whether these were only floated or actually put on the table only a fly on the wall could say.

Opponents fended them off. But Republican negotiators apparently felt the need to do something hostile to immigrants — if only to get enough of their colleagues on board when the bill came to a vote.

And their Democratic counterparts apparently felt they had to swallow something to get a deal done — and passed. They knew, after all, as did the Republicans, that right-wingers were insisting on a battery of anti-immigrants riders on the budget bill.

For whatever reasons, the final tax package does several things that will disadvantage some immigrant taxpayers.

One provision will deny those who filed with an ITIN but shortly thereafter got a Social Security number from claiming the EITC benefits they could have claimed before if they’d had it. Another will bar retroactive CTC claims in cases where the credit wasn’t initially claimed due to lack of an ITIN.

Still another will translate into law some recent rules that require about 21 million ITIN filers to get a new number and, at the same time, make the process more difficult.

Bottom Line

Even without the anti-immigrant provisions, the bill would be only far better than one that omitted the refundable tax credit improvements.

Progressive advocates and some members of Congress, not only progressives, have proposed further improvements. These will have to wait for another day — and a very different Congress.

Last but not least, the tax cuts alone will cost nearly $629 billion over the next 10 years, according to Joint Committee on Taxation estimates.* And not a penny of the revenue loss is offset. This will surely cramp needed investments.

To say that extensions of nominally temporary tax cuts are never paid for doesn’t make the bill fiscally responsible. This is one reason a majority of House Democrats and six in the Senate voted against it.

But, as CLASP says, “it is highly likely that Congress would have simply extended the business credits without doing anything for working families.”

So to my mind — and not mine only — the bill the President signed represents a major victory for the bipartisan-minded negotiators and for progressive advocates, including grassroots folks who signed petitions, called Congress members and visited them on Capitol Hill — or got in their faces when they were back home.

Something to recall as we head into a new year, with new challenges.

* The total package Congress passed postpones three taxes established by the Affordable Care Act. This makes the cost larger, though by how much we can’t yet know because the delays may or may not become conventional extenders

 

 


Putting Brakes on Runaway DC Tax Breaks

December 10, 2015

The District of Columbia has pretty well recovered from the Great Recession. Not all residents have, of course. And some had no recession to recover from because they were jobless, homeless and the like before it began.

But a fair number do seem to have higher earnings now since tax revenues have increased and are expected to increase further during the next several years.

So barring some unforeseen disaster — or dreadful policy choices — we’re unlikely to see severe spending cuts driven by the District’s need to keep its budget balanced. That doesn’t mean the District has the wherewithal to meet all critical needs, however. Not even close.

For one thing, as I’ve remarked before, the District, like other state and local governments, will have to spend more merely to make up for shrinking federal support.

For another, the District has needs beyond what even less stingy federal funding would cover — affordable housing, new shelters for homeless singles, as well as families, better public education, especially for low-income and/or minority students …. Well, you can fill in the blank as well as I.

So the DC Council should do two things during the upcoming budget season — both under the heading of do no (further) harm.

Stop the Triggered Tax Cuts

The Budget Support Act the Council passed in 2014 includes a provision that makes certain tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission automatic when projected revenues are sufficiently greater than they were when the budget became final to keep it balanced, despite the losses.*

Basically, the Chairman chose the tax cuts he liked best. Then he ranked those that would have immediately thrown the budget out of whack so that the most preferred would kick in first, then the next and so on.

The priority order itself reflects some dubious preferences — a cut in the tax rate for personal incomes over $350,000, for example, and two increases in the minimum value estates must have to owe any District tax.

But the triggers are to my mind — and not mine only — irresponsible in principle because they deny Councilmembers the opportunity to weigh revenue losses against unmet spending needs on a case-by-case basis.

We’d expect triggers from Red states with governors and legislatures bound and determined to slash spending — and in at least some cases, convinced that tax cuts will stimulate so much growth as to pay for themselves.

And indeed, most, though not all states that have adopted triggers are Red. No economic booms. Google Kansas or Oklahoma budget deficit for specific sorry results.

Fortunately, the District isn’t controlled by officials who take their cues from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes triggers as a way to starve governments of funds needed for services, as well as other laws its Koch brother and other corporate backers favor.

So it seems to me our elected representatives shouldn’t persist in an approach that will privilege tax cuts over services that could do more good for more people.

Stop Administrations From Needlessly Giving Money Away

Four years ago, the Council passed a sensible law to exert some discipline into the process of awarding tax breaks to specific entities or projects. It postponed any Council hearing until the Chief Financial Officer provided an assessment.

Well, the Bowser administration recently moved to give a $60 million property tax cut to the Advisory Board — a large consulting firm that had indicated it might move its headquarters to Virginia. Some commitments on the Board’s part, mostly jobs for District residents.

But the Board would probably hire at least as many residents anyway, the CFO opined. And the annual $6 million more it would have to pay without the cut would “not affect the company’s ability to maintain operations or continue its growth.”

In any event, the CFO said, “research indicates that tax incentives are generally not a critical factor in corporate locational decisions.” The Council rubber-stamped the tax break anyway.

This is hardly the first such tax giveaway. The District has a long history of them — more than I could possibly cite here, even if I could compile the list.

Like me, however, some of you may remember former Mayor Gray’s $32.5 million tax break package for LivingSocial — a bad bet, as it proved, on the company’s growth and new hires.

In this case, the CFO took a pass on whether enticing LivingSocial to locate its headquarters here would have economic benefits. But he again concluded that the company would be able to pay its expenses and sustain its operations without the tax breaks.

And he noted presciently that it had yet to turn a profit, casting doubts even then on benefits the District and its residents would reap. Unanimous approval from Councilmembers anyway.

So clearly, the law isn’t working as intended. And every time the Council approves one of these corporate tax breaks, it encourages other enterprises to engage in the same sort of extortion.

It could take an alternative approach. It could fold property tax reductions (technically, abatements) and other locally-funded tax incentives into the budget for economic development.

Not my idea. But to me, it makes all the sense in the world because tax breaks are a form of spending — hence the term tax expenditures, which is how budget wonks refer to them.

Putting a line item for corporate tax breaks into the budget would compel the administration and Council to weigh the total against other spending options — and force choices later, since the budget would cap the total dollar value of the giveaways.

Neither of these policy shifts would ensure sufficient funding for programs and services that benefit low-income residents — because they’re targeted or because they improve the economy and quality of life in our community.

But the shifts would tend to foster decisions that weigh direct spending needs against spending through the tax code.

* The 2015 Budget Control Act pushed the triggers back to an earlier revenue forecast. So some will kick in even before the Council has a proposed budget to work on.

UPDATE: Very shortly after I published this, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute published a post warning that the District could have to cut spending for next year unless policymakers can find alternative ways to fund “one-time” items in the current budget.

 

 


Better Poverty Measure Changes Rates, Strengthens Case for Safety Net

September 21, 2015

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau published the results of its latest Supplemental Poverty Measure analysis at the same time as its official poverty measure rates for 2014.

As in the past, the SPM produces a somewhat higher nationwide poverty rate — 15.3%. Though a tad lower than the comparable rate last year, slides from the Bureau say it’s not enough to pass the statistical test.

We also see different rates, both higher and lower, for the major population groups the Bureau breaks out. For example, the child poverty rate is 4.8% lower — 3.5 million or so fewer children. At the same time, the senior poverty rate rises by nearly as much.

We see shifts among major race/ethnicity groups as well. The largest are for blacks (3% lower) and for Asians (4.8% higher).

All these shifts and others reflect four major ways the SPM differs from the official measure — the base it proceeds from, adjustments it makes for certain basic living and other “necessary” costs, whom it includes as part of a family and what it counts as income.

This last gives us a glimpse — imperfect, but the best we’ve got — of how well some of our major federal anti-poverty measures work. And once again, we get reliable hard data proving that they do work, right-wing canards notwithstanding.

For example, we generally see lower deep poverty rates, i.e., the percent of the population overall or of a particular group that lived on incomes no greater than half the applicable poverty threshold — about $9,535 for a parent with two children.

The overall deep poverty rate is 1.6% lower than what the official measure produces. The deep poverty rate for children drops more markedly — from 9.7% to 4.3%.

The Census Bureau attributes the lower deep poverty rates to non-cash benefits targeted to low-income people — a type of income the SPM captures, while the official measure doesn’t. Seniors are the exception here, it notes.

Their deep poverty rate goes up to 5.1%, making it the same as the rate for the population as a whole. This is mainly because both the official measure and the SPM count Social Security benefits as income, but only the latter adjusts for medical out-of-pocket costs, along with others deducted from the base.

It’s nevertheless still the case that Social Security proves the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. Without Social Security benefits, half of all people 65 and over would fall below the poverty threshold.

The Census Bureau shows this and the effects of other benefits — mostly parts of the safety net — by deducting their value and displaying the new poverty rate.

So we learn, for example, that not counting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit would make the SPM poverty rate 3.1% higher. Little back-of-the-envelope math tells us that the tax credits effectively lifted about 9.8 million people out of poverty, including more than 5.2 million children.

SNAP (food stamp) benefits rank third among the anti-poverty impacts. They account for about 4.7 million fewer poor people, almost half of them children.

On the other hand, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits lifted only about 316,000 people above the poverty threshold — and so few in the working-age (18-64) group as to make no nick in their poverty rate whatever.

Now, the analysis doesn’t reflect the way benefits work in the real world. Most families that receive federally-funded help with their heating bills probably also get SNAP benefits, for example. Likewise low-income working families that get an annual budget boost from the refundable tax credits.

We don’t yet have an analysis that rolls all such safety net benefits together, though we do have one for 2012 that shows they cut the SPM poverty rate by nearly half and the child poverty rate by even more.

Do we nonetheless have policy lessons here? Well, of course, we do. Don’t want to try your patience, followers, but can’t restrain myself from flagging (flogging?) a few.

LIHEAP has become a pitiful thing, partly because it got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts, partly because this came on top of earlier cuts and partly because, in case you hadn’t noticed, home heating costs have increased.

So fewer households are getting such help as LIHEAP provides and they’re getting less — so much less that the average grant didn’t cover even two months of heating during the 2014-15 winter season.

Not going to see much improvement, if any so long as the Congressional Republican majority insists on keeping appropriations for non-defense programs below the caps set by the Budget Control Act. The House Appropriations Committee has, in fact, approved a $25 million cut for LIHEAP.

Changes in the refundable tax credits that help account for the effectiveness the SPM analysis indicates will expire at the end of 2017. And what seems a bipartisan sentiment in favor of expanding the EITC for childless workers is thus far little more than that — and not all that bipartisan, if we judge by cosponsors of bills pending in Congress.

Though SNAP clearly lifts people of all ages out of poverty, it doesn’t prevent a goodly number from going hungry at least some of the time. More about this in an upcoming post — and more perhaps about other issues one can tease out of the new SPM report.

 


New Plan to Reduce Child Poverty in America

August 20, 2015

Children have the highest poverty rate of any age group in our country. Nearly 14.7 million of them — 19.9% — are officially poor, according to the latest Census report.

The percent is even higher for infants and toddlers, a new brief from the Center for American Progress tells us — nearly 23% or well over one in five. CAP has a four-part proposal to reduce the child poverty rate — and the depth of poverty for children who’d still be poor.

Unlike a plan I earlier blogged on, its parts all have to do with the Child Tax Credit. The first part, tucked into the brief as a starting point, is a permanent extension of the improvement the Recovery Act made. It’s now among the refundable tax credit improvements due to expire in 2017.

CAP’s plan would then do what some progressives advocated for the Recovery Act — drop the threshold for claiming the CTC to the first dollar of earned income, rather than the first dollar over $3,000.

At the same time, the plan would make the CTC fully refundable. In other words, a family would get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service for the entire amount its income tax liability fell short of the deductions and credits it claimed.

The credit now phases in to a maximum of $1,000 per child, leaving low-income parents with only a partial credit — or in some cases, no credit at all for a second or third child.

A third change would index the per child credit to inflation so that it didn’t lose value over time. Like the other two parts I’ve cited, linking the credit to the Consumer Price Index the IRS uses for tax provisions would make the CTC more like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Now comes a part that CAP refers to as “enhancing” the CTC, but would actually be more like the child allowances many European countries (and a few others) provide. Families with children less than three years old would get $125 a month, regardless of income or how they net out at tax time.

They’d get this supplement monthly as a direct deposit to their bank account or on a debit card. So they’d have more to spend as they needed it to pay for the costs of caring for their babies and toddlers.

These costs can be very high. I’ve already said my bit about diapers. Full-time day care in a center for an infant cost, on average, more than $10,000 a year in half the states in 2013. And far from all poor and near-poor families can have their children’s daycare costs subsidized by either of the two main federal funding sources.

Rolling all the costs together, a CNN Money calculator tells us that a low-income family will have to pay, on average, an estimated $176,550 to raise a child born two years ago — $35,880 more if they live in an urban area in the northeast part of the country.

Now, CAP’s proposals would hardly supply parents with the wherewithal to pay for anything approaching this. Nor are they intended to. They wouldn’t eliminate child poverty either. They would, however, reduce it.

The overall poverty rate for children under seventeen would fall by 13.2%, CAP says. About 18% of children under three would be lifted out of poverty altogether — this, I assume, because of the extra income boost parents of children this young would get.

CAP also looks at the combined effects of its proposals on families with infants and toddlers who’d still have incomes (less any EITC refund and/or cash benefits) below the federal poverty line.

For them, it estimates how far its proposal would go toward closing the “poverty gap,” i.e., the difference between their average income and the FPL.

The gap would shrink by an estimated 26.1% nationwide, it reports. But, of course, the proposals would shrink the gap for all now-poor families with children — perhaps, in fact, lifting some of them above the FPL and, for sure, reducing the poverty gap for all.

The gap-closing effects of the proposals would vary considerably from state to state, a map supplement to the brief shows. They range from 25.4% in Hawaii to 12% in Wyoming. We who live in the District of Columbia could see a gap roughly 16.4% smaller.

CAP’s proposals would cost an estimated $29.2 billion if they were all in place this year. Somewhat more in the future, since the child tax credit would increase to keep pace with consumer price inflation.

This is hardly a big investment, even for spending through the tax code. So-called tax expenditures will cost the federal government about $1.22 trillion this year, the National Priorities Project reports.

Unlike many of the tax breaks, however, investments to reduce child poverty would pay for themselves many times over. An oft-cited study conducted in 2007 concluded that child poverty cost our country about half a trillion a year. Adjusting for inflation, CAP puts the total at more than $672 billion.

But this is a low-end estimate because the study included only the largest and mostly easily quantifiable costs, as the authors dutifully noted.

One doesn’t, I think, want our policies to hinge on dollars saved by alleviating the hardships and lifelong consequences of growing up in a family that’s so short on money as to be officially poor — or the hardships parents suffer to do the best they can for their children.

But if the return on investment would help CAP’s proposals gain support in a Congress that seems reluctant to even sustain the anti-poverty programs we’ve got, a strong talking point is ready to hand.

 


Too Soon to Lock in DC Tax Cuts

June 25, 2015

Life is full of surprises, they say. So is the District of Columbia’s budget. I’m referring here to the Budget Support Act, the package of legislation that’s paired with the spending bill.

Turns out that the BSA the DC Council will soon take its second required vote on could trigger tax cuts before either the Mayor or the Council knows how much the District will need to spend just to keep services flowing — let alone how much it should spend.

Whoever knew? Doubtful all Councilmembers did, since Chairman Mendelson distributed the final BSA shortly before the first vote. Other interested parties surely didn’t because it wasn’t published.

And one would have needed time to figure out what the Chairman had done because his bill doesn’t spell out how it would change trigger provisions enacted as part of last year’s BSA.

Well, we know now — or could, thanks to a heads-up from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a DC for Democracy post that adds some angles.

The basic issue here — though not the only one — is when tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission should go into effect. Both the original BSA provision and the new version require a revenue projection higher than an earlier one.

Tax cuts wouldn’t all kick in at once, since that would immediately throw the budget out of balance. Last year’s BSA ranked them in priority order. The ranking would stay the same. But that’s as far as the parallels go.

Set aside for a moment the egregious lack of transparency. What’s wrong with the latest plan for triggering tax cuts based on rosier revenue projections? Three big things.

Tax Cuts Take Priority Over Spending Needs

The new plan would dedicated all of the projected revenue increase to tax cuts, rather than the excess over a threshold set by the current BSA.

And it would do that before the Chief Financial Officer had estimated the costs of sustaining existing programs in the upcoming fiscal year. These tend to rise for various reasons, as DCFPI notes.

Beyond that, we’re not spending as much as we should in a number of areas — affordable housing and homeless services, to name just two. This year’s budget makes some progress on both. But further progress will stall if the Mayor and Council can’t allocate the revenues needed.

Without them, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the single largest source of financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — could have less next fiscal year, since half of the $100 million it has now reflects a one-time appropriation.

The next steps envisioned in the latest strategic plan to end homelessness in the District also hinge on further investments. For example, the plan envisions year-over-year increases in permanent supportive housing for families, plus some rapid re-housing vouchers extended past the usual one-year limit.

It also calls for some indefinite-term vouchers earmarked for families and single adults who can’t afford housing when they don’t need intensive supportive services any more or come to the end of their rapid re-housing extensions.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll add that we’re likely to have homeless families until the Mayor and Council significantly increase Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which now, at best, leave a family of three at about 26% of the federal poverty line.

More generally, setting automatic triggers for a series of tax cuts denies both the Mayor and Council a chance to weigh priorities during budget seasons. Those tax cuts, recall, will mean relatively less in revenues not only next year, but every year — unless they’re repealed.

A whole lot harder politically to repeal a tax cut than to defer it until it won’t preempt spending that will do more good for more people than reducing tax obligations for some.

Cuts in the Offing Tilt Toward Well-Off Taxpayers

The Tax Revision Commission made nearly a dozen recommendations for cuts — a mixed bag if you believe that individuals and businesses should contribute to the general welfare according to how well they’re faring.

The Council adopted a couple that ease tax burdens for low and moderate-income residents. But those ranked highest in the BSA now don’t reflect a consistent preference for a progressive tax structure — far from it.

The second listed, for example, would reduce the tax rate on income between $350,000 and $1 million. Next on the list — and again in fifth place — are cuts in the franchise taxes that businesses pay.

The threshold for any tax on estates would increase to $2 million before filers would get larger standard deductions — the option virtually all low-income taxpayers choose because they’d pay more by itemizing.

Bigger Revenue Losses Than Recommended

The Tax Revision Commission recommended revenue increases to offset the losses resulting from its recommended cuts. The Council took a pass on two. The new BSA would do the same, forgoing $67 million, DCFPI reports.

So there’d be a straitjack on revenue growth — possibly indeed future shortfalls. The District has had these before — the latest only just remedied by savings found.

What the shortfalls tell us is that revenue projections are inherently iffy — the more so as they estimate collections beyond the upcoming quarter of a fiscal year. That’s just how forecasts are. Ditto projections of spending needs.

Who, for example, can foresee a prodigious snowstorm, requiring millions more to clear the roads than budgeted? Who, at this point, can predict how much crucial programs will lose due to federal spending cuts?

So it seems unnecessarily risky to plow ahead with tax cuts before next year’s budget is even on the drawing board. And if past is prologue, programs that help low-income residents are what the BSA would actually put at risk.

UPDATE: I’ve learned, from reliable sources, that the excess revenue threshold in the current BSA applied only to the forecast used as the basis for next fiscal year’s budget. Under the current law, tax cuts would kick in with any higher revenue forecast, but not until next February. The Mayor could, if she chose, ask the Council to approve using the extra for unmet needs instead.

So what I wrote about the current BSA is misleading, but my basic point that the new BSA would trigger cuts prematurely stands.

 

 


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