The Center's work on 'Individuals and Families' Issues


New Poverty Figures Show Impact of Working-Family Tax Credits

October 17, 2014 at 2:05 pm

The Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) together lifted 9.4 million people out of poverty in 2013 and made 22.2 million others less poor, our analysis of Census data released yesterday show (see first graph).

Using Census’ Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which includes taxes and non-cash benefits as well as cash income, our analysis shows how critical these tax credits are for low-income families.  It also highlights the impact if policymakers let key provisions of the credits expire, as I explain below.

Each credit plays an important antipoverty role.  The EITC lifted 6.2 million people out of poverty in 2013, including 3.2 million children.  The CTC lifted 3.1 million people out of poverty, including 1.7 million children.  Both credits acting together lifted some additional people out of poverty.

The EITC and CTC combined lift more children out of poverty than any other antipoverty program.

Unfortunately, critical provisions of the EITC and CTC are set to expire at the end of 2017.  If that happens, 16.4 million people — including 7.7 million children — will fall into or deeper into poverty, we estimate based on the Census data.  (See second graph.)  Our interactive calculator lets you explore what’s at stake for low-income families if policymakers don’t act.

What Would Congress’s Inaction Cost Working Families? Find Out.

October 8, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Unless Congress acts, key Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provisions will expire at the end of 2017, pushing 17 million people — including 8 million children — into or deeper into poverty.  As we’ve noted here and here, making these provisions permanent should be a key priority for Congress.

Our new interactive calculator, below, allows you to explore what’s at stake for low- and moderate-income families if three important provisions expire at the end of 2017:

CTC refundability threshold

Current provision:  The CTC is worth up to $1,000 per child, and families have to work to qualify for it.  A family needs to earn at least $3,000 before beginning to earn the portion of the CTC that can be received as a tax refund.  The refundable CTC gradually phases in as earnings rise above that level. A family with two children cannot qualify for the full CTC unless their earnings reach $16,330.

In 2018, without action:  The $3,000 earnings threshold will more than quadruple to $14,700, so families with earnings between $3,000 and $14,700 will lose their entire CTC.  As the interactive below shows, a single mother who works full time at the minimum wage (earning $14,500) would see her CTC fall by $1,725, to $0 — a real hit to her ability to afford the basics.  To qualify for the full CTC, a married couple with two children will need earnings of at least $28,030, so many families that will still qualify will see their credits cut substantially.  About 3.7 million families, including 5.8 million children, will lose their entire CTC, and an additional 5.2 million families, including 10.6 million children, will lose part of their CTC, Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) estimates.

EITC marriage penalty relief

Current provision:  The EITC now begins to phase down at an income level that’s $5,000 higher for married couples than for single filers.

In 2018, without action:  The EITC for married couples will begin to phase out only $3,000 above single filers’ phase-out level, cutting the EITC for many low-income married filers and increasing the EITC’s marriage penalty for two-earner families.

EITC boost for larger families

Current provision:  Families with three or more children can qualify for a maximum EITC that’s about $650 larger than for families with two children.

In 2018, without action:  The maximum EITC for families with three or more children will be cut to the same maximum EITC as families with two children.

With the loss of these two key EITC provisions, 6.5 million families, including 15.9 million children, would lose some or all of their EITC, CTJ estimates.

This calculator does not show the impact of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit to defray the costs of college, which is also set to expire at the end of 2017 under current law.  Its expiration would mean the loss of tax credits for college for about 11 million families with students.

4 Questions About Lee-Rubio Tax Plan

October 6, 2014 at 4:18 pm

With tax reform potentially on Congress’ agenda next year, the tax plan that Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) sketched out recently will merit a close look.  Its marquee proposal would supplement the current Child Tax Credit (CTC) with an additional credit of $2,500 per child.  We can’t evaluate the plan, which the senators say “won’t only help revive the American dream, but also make it more attainable for more Americans than ever before,” until they provide the details.  Here are four things we’d like to know about its changes to the CTC and the other major tax credit for working families, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

  1. Would “stock clerks” with children receive the new child tax credit?  Lee and Rubio write that Americans “see an economy that benefits stockholders but not stock clerks.”  But another tax plan that Senator Lee released in the spring, which also featured an additional child tax credit, denied the new credit to many working-poor families even though high-income families with children would have benefitted.
  1. Would low-income families keep their current Child Tax Credit?  Under the prior Lee plan, a single mother who works for the minimum wage and has two kids would have lost $1,725 in existing CTC benefits because the plan let key improvements to the existing CTC (as well as the EITC) expire in 2018.  But a millionaire with two children would qualify for a new child credit worth more than $5,000.
  1. Would the plan’s “retooling” of the EITC reduce poverty?  Lee and Rubio promise to “retool” the EITC in combination with means-tested programs (like SNAP, formerly food stamps), saying that the phasedown of these benefits in response to higher earnings creates high “marginal tax rates.” As we’ve explained, though, changes to reduce these marginal tax rates can also shrink needed assistance to poorer families — or increase program costs.  The EITC and CTC together lift more children out of poverty than any other program; “reform” can mean a lot of things, so when the details are available, we’ll be looking at whether the plan cuts assistance to the neediest families, thereby worsening poverty, or is structured to reduce poverty.
  1. Will the plan expand the EITC for childless workers, as leading members of both parties favor?  Working adults who aren’t living with and raising children are the only group that the federal tax system taxes into (or deeper into) poverty.  President Obama and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) have both proposed expanding the EITC for this largely left-out group.

Several months before releasing his tax plan this spring, Senator Lee called for tackling the “opportunity crisis” of “immobility among the poor,” “insecurity in the middle class,” and “cronyist privilege at the top” and promised that his tax plan would address these problems.  But when the details finally appeared, they didn’t live up to his speech.  Let’s hope this time’s different.

Tax Incentives for Retirement Savings Need Reform

September 29, 2014 at 2:18 pm

“We need to hear facts and serious policy proposals, not political slogans” like “upside-down tax incentives,” the Senate Finance Committee’s top Republican, Orrin Hatch, said at a recent committee hearing on retirement savings.  But tax incentives for retirement plans like 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs)are indeed “upside down,” providing the largest subsidies to high-income taxpayers while benefiting low-income households the least (see chart).  As we’ve written, tax incentives for retirement savings are expensive, inefficient, and inequitable, making them ripe for reform.

New studies, including one highlighted at the September 16 Senate hearing, show how some very high-income taxpayers are accumulating enormousbalances using tax-preferred accounts — well beyond the accounts’ intended purposes.  Roughly 9,000 taxpayers have IRAs with balances that top $5 million, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found.  Despite contribution limits to tax-advantaged retirement accounts, such balances are possible because some executives buy shares of stock for their IRAs at extremely low valuations — sometimes less than a penny each.  Those balances then swell when the stocks are valued at market price — and the gain is tax-free.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) termed this abuse of IRAs an unintentional “tax shelter for millionaires.”

The GAO study complements research published in the Journal of Retirement, which estimated that about 85,000 households each held over $3 million in certain tax-preferred plans, including IRAs.

Retirement savings tax incentives are among the largest federal category of “tax expenditures,” in terms of federal revenue losses.  While lavishing large tax benefits on very wealthy filers, they do little to encourage new saving among a broad segment of lower- and middle-income Americans.

The need for reform is clear.

House Republicans’ Wrong-Headed Approach to Tax Extenders

September 17, 2014 at 1:00 pm

House Republicans are putting before the House this week a campaign-oriented bill of wide-ranging measures that have previously passed the House, including repealing portions of the Affordable Care Act and scaling back Dodd-Frank regulations.  The bill, which won’t advance beyond the House due to obvious Senate and White House opposition, also includes business tax provisions that lawmakers will likely consider again during Congress’ post-election lame duck session this fall.  For that reason alone, the legislation warrants some attention.

The House bill would make permanent certain “tax extenders” — so named because Congress routinely extends them for a year or two at a time — as well as bonus depreciation, which lets businesses take larger upfront tax deductions for certain purchases, such as machinery and equipment, and that historically has been a temporary measure to help revive a weak economy.  Congress should reject the House approach to these provisions because it is not fiscally responsible, is poorly designed from an economic standpoint, and is antithetical to tax reform.  Moreover, it reflects seriously misplaced priorities, putting the permanent extension of these business provisions ahead of more pressing provisions for hard-working families.

  • Its $500 billion price tag is fiscally irresponsible.  Policymakers have enacted significant deficit-reduction measures since 2010, with the vast majority coming from spending cuts.  The one revenue contribution stems from the 2012 “fiscal cliff” bill — i.e., the American Taxpayer Relief Act — that raised $770 billion in revenue from high-income taxpayers (from 2015 to 2024).  The tax extenders and bonus depreciation provisions in the House bill would reduce revenue by $500 billion over the decade, effectively giving back two-thirds of the revenue contribution to deficit reduction (see chart).  (The total cost of the House bill is about $575 billion, because of other revenue-losing provisions.)

  • It’s poorly designed from an economic standpoint because it makes bonus depreciation permanent.  Making bonus depreciation permanent accounts for more than half of the $500 billion cost of the business tax provisions.  But bonus depreciation was specifically designed not to be permanent because its temporary nature is what drives its (albeit limited) effectiveness during recessions.  Its modest economic boost comes entirely from inducing firms to accelerate some of their purchases into the period when the tax break is in effect and the economy is weak.  Making it permanent would negate this modest incentive effect.  That’s why the Bush Administration and Congress allowed it to expire after the 2001 recession ended and why this Congress should let it expire now.
  • It moves away from tax reform.  The fundamental nature of tax reform is to “broaden the base” by scaling back tax subsidies and to use the freed-up funds to lower tax rates, reduce budget deficits, or both.  For example, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) earlier this year advanced a comprehensive plan that eliminated tax subsidies for certain business investments, including the repeal of bonus depreciation.  These changes were central to his base-broadening provisions.  But the package that House Republicans are now bringing before the House goes in the opposite direction.  Its provision to make bonus depreciation permanent narrows the tax base and, thereby, moves away from tax reform.

If, during the lame duck session, policymakers consider making any tax extenders permanent, they should focus first on making permanent important provisions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) that are due to expire at the end of 2017.  Failure to make the EITC and CTC provisions permanent would have a significant impact on low- and moderate-income families, pushing 17 million people (including 8 million children) into — or deeper into — poverty.