The Center's work on 'Poverty and Income' Issues

The Center analyzes major economic developments affecting low- and moderate-income Americans, including trends in poverty, income inequality, and the working poor. In addition, we analyze the asset rules in various public benefit programs that can discourage low-income people from building modest savings and highlight potential reforms.


Why the 1996 Welfare Law Is Not a Model for Other Safety-Net Programs

July 22, 2014 at 2:25 pm

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s upcoming poverty plan will likely showcase the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — a block grant with fixed federal funding but broad state flexibility — as a model for reforming other safety net programs.  A careful examination of the record, however, indicates that the 1996 law’s results were mixed and that if the goal is to reduce poverty, especially among the most disadvantaged families and children, there are serious downsides to embracing the 1996 law as a model.  The record shows:

  1. A booming economy contributed far more than welfare reform to the gains in single mothers’ employment in the 1990s, and many of those gains have since disappeared.  A highly regarded study by University of Chicago economist Jeffrey Grogger found that welfare reform accounted for just 13 percent of the rise in employment among single mothers in the 1990s.  The Earned Income Tax Credit (which policymakers expanded in 1990 and 1993) and the strong economy were bigger factors, accounting for 34 percent and 21 percent of the increase, respectively.While the booming economy helped many families move from welfare to work during the 1990s, the labor market situation is much weaker today.  The share of single mothers without a high school degree with earnings rose from 49 percent to 64 percent between 1995 and 2000 but has since fallen or remained constant almost every year since then.  At 55 percent, it’s now just slightly above its level in 1997, the first full year of welfare reform (see first graph).
     

  2. TANF provides a safety net for very few families and failed to respond to increased need during the Great Recession.  The welfare law’s relatively modest contribution to raising employment among single mothers came at a substantial price.  TANF now serves only 25 of every 100 families with children that live below the poverty line, down from AFDC’s 68 of every 100 such families before the welfare law (see second graph).  The Great Recession provided the ultimate test of whether states could do better than the federal government in providing a safety net for poor families, as the welfare law’s proponents had claimed, and the results are very unsettling.  As the number of unemployed Americans doubled in the downturn’s early years, TANF caseloads rose by just 13 percent nationally; in 22 states, the number of assisted families rose little or not at all.  In the face of rising need, many states scaled back their TANF programs to save money — tightening time limits and cutting already low benefit levels despite the lack of available jobs — leaving the poorest families poorer.  As a result, TANF emerged from the downturn an even weaker safety net.
     

  3. TANF does little to help recipients succeed in today’s labor market.  Chairman Ryan has spoken of the importance of helping people get the skills they need to move out of poverty.  Yet TANF’s extensive restrictions on what are considered acceptable work activities discourage states from providing TANF recipients with opportunities to increase their education and job skills.  Restrictions on participation in vocational education and GED or high school completion programs leave many recipients unable to compete in today’s labor market.  And although most states’ cash assistance caseloads fell substantially in the late 1990s, states generally haven’t used much of the freed-up resources to improve the job prospects of poor parents with barriers to employment.  Only 8 percent of state and federal TANF dollars directly support work activities for cash assistance recipients.  Even when you add in funds that support working families like child care assistance and the refundable part of state earned income tax credits, states spend only one-third of their federal and state TANF dollars to promote and support work.

Understanding Marginal Tax Rates and Government Benefits

July 22, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Some Washington policymakers are increasingly focused on whether government benefits for low- and moderate-income people create disincentives to work — in particular, when these benefits phase down as the earnings of beneficiaries rise, our new commentary notes.  That phase-down rate is often called the “marginal tax rate” because it resembles a tax — benefits fall as earnings rise.  As we explain:

[P]olicymakers across the ideological spectrum share concerns about marginal tax rates and agree that, all else being equal, lower marginal tax rates are preferable to higher ones.  Unfortunately, all else is not equal, and lowering marginal tax rates entails significant and very challenging policy trade-offs. . . .

[M]arginal tax rates are the product not of bad policy design but rather of competing policy goals:  providing needed assistance to financially struggling individuals and families and limiting costs by not providing help to those with more adequate income.  Any serious discussion of the marginal tax rate issue must grapple with the fundamental tension between limiting assistance, controlling costs, and reducing marginal tax rates.

No such serious discussion is likely to result, however, from exaggeration of the marginal tax rates that most low-income families face, overstatement of the impact those marginal rates have on actual work behavior by low-income households, or glossing over the tough policy trade-offs that policymakers must face when seeking to reduce marginal rates.

Click here for the full commentary.

House Should Reject Backwards Child Tax Credit Bill

July 18, 2014 at 2:11 pm

The full House next week will consider the Ways and Means Committee’s recently passed Child Tax Credit (CTC) bill.  A recent Tax Policy Center (TPC) analysis confirms our previous critical assessments of the proposal, finding that it would make many relatively affluent people better off while making low-income working families poorer.

As we explained, the bill makes three main policy decisions that, taken together, constitute poor policy:

  1. It extends the Child Tax Credit higher up the income scale — on a permanent basis — so more families with six-figure incomes will benefit.  The bill raises the income levels at which the CTC begins to phase out.  (It also indexes those thresholds to inflation.)  Couples with two children making between $150,000 and $205,000 would become newly eligible for the credit; a family making $150,000 a year would receive a new tax cut of $2,200 in 2018. 
  2. It fails to make permanent a key CTC provision for working-poor families that will expire in 2017 unless Congress acts.  The provision, which was enacted in 2009, made more working-poor families eligible for the CTC and enlarged it for other working-poor families who had been receiving only a partial credit, by phasing in the credit as a family’s earnings rose above $3,000.  If this low-income provision expires on schedule — as the Ways and Means bill allows — a single mother with two children who works full time throughout the year at the minimum wage and earns $14,500 would lose $1,725 in 2018, as her CTC would be eliminated. 
  3. It indexes the current maximum credit of $1,000 per child to inflation.  This provision benefits only those with incomes high enough to receive the maximum credit.  If the low-income provision is allowed to expire in 2017, millions of working-poor families would either lose their CTC altogether or have their CTC cut and no longer receive the maximum credit, which would make the inflation adjustment meaningless for them.  Under the bill, indexing wouldn’t benefit a family with two children in 2018 until it has earnings of at least $28,050 — nearly double what full-time minimum-wage work pays an individual, as we have explained. 

TPC’s analysis illustrates how the combined effects of these policy decisions harm low-income families while benefiting many with higher incomes.  As the first chart below shows, families with children that have incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 would gain, on average, nearly $550 apiece in 2018, while families with incomes below $40,000 would lose, on average.

The Ways and Means bill’s effects on households’ after-tax incomes are also striking.  As the next chart below shows, households earning less than $20,000 in 2018 would face, on average, a drop in their after-tax income of more than 3 percent while those with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 would get a boost in their after-tax earnings.

TPC’s analysis underscores the downsides of the Ways and Means bill for low-income working families.  These are parents who work for low or modest wages as cashiers, waitresses, home health aides, and day laborers; they clean office buildings or perform other low-paid work.  Policymakers should reverse course and put these families’ needs first, rather than last, when the full House considers the bill.

Bernstein on Five Years of Economic Recovery

July 15, 2014 at 3:22 pm

CBPP Senior Fellow Jared Bernstein testified today before the Joint Economic Committee on the progress that has been made in repairing the U.S. economy over the first five years of the recovery from the Great Recession.

Bernstein explained:

When markets fail as massively as they did in the late 2000s, quick and forceful action clearly helps offset the damage.  But to stop at stabilization, instead of rebuilding jobs and incomes that were lost over the downturn is a serious policy mistake, one that has proven to be extremely costly to working families. . . . [T]here is time to build on the recent momentum we’ve seen, particularly in the job market.

Bernstein pointed out that while there are many positive attributes to the current recovery, especially in relation to the depth of the previous recession, it is clearly not yet reaching everyone:

  • Thanks in part to countercyclical policies legislated by Congress in 2009, along with aggressive monetary policy by the Federal Reserve, significant progress has been made in repairing the damage done by the uniquely deep recession that began in late 2007.
  • These gains, while incomplete, are evident in the job market, particularly in the recent acceleration in job growth and decline in unemployment.  After 52 consecutive months of net private sector job growth, non-government employment is up 9.7 million jobs since early 2010.
  • Moreover, employment growth has accelerated in recent months.  Payrolls added 1.4 million jobs in the first half of this year, their strongest six-month growth period since late 1999.

  • Un- and underemployment are both down significantly over the recovery, as are other slack metrics that rose sharply in the downturn, including long-term unemployment and involuntary part-time work.  While part of the decline in unemployment was due to labor force exits, this negative trend has also stabilized in recent months.
  • Private payrolls grew about 3 percent faster over the first five years of this recovery compared to the prior recovery, despite the fact that the recession that preceded this expansion was much deeper in terms of lost output and much longer lasting than the downturn that preceded the 2000s expansion.  The private sector added 3.4 million more jobs in the first five years of this recovery than were added in the last one.
  • Yet, slack remains in the job market and wage growth has generally not yet accelerated; real median household income, after falling sharply by around 10 percent in the downturn, is up about 3 percent over the past few years, largely due to more work at flat real earnings.  Corporate profitability and financial market returns, on the other hand, have more than recovered their losses.

Bernstein warned that policymakers cannot stop at stabilization. To prolong and strengthen the recovery, he recommended investing in infrastructure and increasing the federal minimum wage.

Click here for Bernstein’s full testimony.

John Oliver Debunks Some Estate Tax Myths

July 14, 2014 at 4:55 pm

John Oliver’s HBO show this weekend featured a segment on income and wealth inequality (warning: colorful language!), and Oliver cited our paper showing that 99.86 percent of all estates in 2013 owed no estate tax (see chart).

As Oliver mentioned and our paper explains, contrary to the myth that many people face the estate tax, the first $5.25 million of every estate (effectively $10.5 million per married couple) is exempt from tax (with that level indexed for inflation).  That means that very few estates owe any tax.  For those few that did in 2013, the “effective” tax rate — that is, the percentage of the estate’s value that is paid in taxes — was 16.6 percent, on average.  That’s far below the top estate tax rate of 40 percent.

Rather than cutting investments in areas like education, medical research, and environmental protection in order to reduce the deficit, policymakers should be looking to strengthen the estate tax.  Learn more about the myths and realities of the federal estate tax here.