“Generational Accounting” Spreads Confusion

August 1, 2014 at 1:05 pm

“Generational accounting” purports to compare the effects of federal budget policies on people born in different years.  But, contrary to economist Lawrence Kotlikoff’s New York Times op-ed promoting a bill requiring federal agencies to adopt the practice, generational accounting is far more likely to obscure than illuminate the budget picture.

Kotlikoff helped develop generational accounting over 20 years ago.  It was supposed to provide useful information missing from standard budget presentations.  It doesn’t do that, however, and few budget analysts use the approach.

Generational accounting rests on several highly unrealistic assumptions, as our detailed analysis explains.  It doesn’t account for the benefits that government spending can have for future generations (for example, education and infrastructure spending that raises living standards).  It also ignores the fact that our children and grandchildren will be richer than we are and have more disposable income, even if they pay somewhat higher taxes.

Generational accounting’s most serious flaw may be that it requires projecting such key variables as population growth, labor force participation, earnings, health care costs, and interest rates through infinity.  Budget experts recognize that projections grow very iffy beyond a few decades — and spinning them out to infinity makes them much more so.  The American Academy of Actuaries describes projections into the infinite future as “of limited value to policymakers.”

The Congressional Budget Office, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and other leading budget analysts focus instead on the next 25 years or so, which amply documents future fiscal pressures and presents a reasonable horizon for policymakers.  These organizations produce simple, straightforward long-run projections that show the path of federal revenues, spending, and debt under current budget policies.  In that way, they show clearly what’s driving fiscal pressures, and when (see chart).

Policymakers should certainly look beyond the standard ten-year horizon of most budget estimates, but they already have the tools to do that.  Generational accounting is hard to interpret and easily misunderstood, and including it in the federal government’s regular budget reports and cost estimates would be a mistake.

Reagan’s Actions Made Him a True EITC Champion

August 1, 2014 at 11:03 am

We’ve noted that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which reduces poverty while encouraging and rewarding work, has enjoyed broad support over the years.  One of its champions was President Reagan, who proposed and then signed a major expansion of it in the 1986 Tax Reform Act.

While Reagan is often quoted as calling the EITC “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress,” he was, as Tax Policy Center director Len Burman blogged this week, actually referring to the 1986 tax reform as a whole, not just its EITC component.  But that takes nothing away from Reagan’s role in strengthening the EITC.

Burman correctly notes that “Republican icon Ronald Reagan supported the Tax Reform Act of 1986’s expansion of the EITC.”   Indeed, Reagan did more than support the EITC increase; he proposed it.

The tax proposals that President Reagan submitted to Congress in 1985 included a proposal to phase in the credit more quickly as a worker’s income rises, expand the maximum EITC, phase the credit out more slowly so that more families would be eligible, and index these parameters for inflation.  The final legislation included the Reagan-proposed phase-in (14 percent) and phase-out (10 percent) rates, as well as his proposed indexation.  Congress went even further on its increase in the maximum credit.

There’s no question that Ronald Reagan’s actions secured his place as a strong advocate of the EITC.

Today’s Jobs Report in Pictures

August 1, 2014 at 10:02 am

Today’s solid jobs report shows a labor market that is moving in the right direction but still has a ways to go before everyone who would like to be working has a reasonable chance of finding a suitable job.  In particular, Congress dealt the long-term unemployed a harsh blow when it allowed federal emergency jobless benefits to expire prematurely at the end of last year.  Seven months later, long-term unemployment remains higher than when any of the previous seven emergency unemployment programs expired after previous recessions.  In addition, the share of the population with a job remains well below where it was at the start of the recession.

Click here for my full statement with further analysis.

The Tax Rules That Health Care Assisters Need to Know

July 31, 2014 at 4:39 pm

“Navigators” and others helping people apply for health coverage need to understand basic tax filing rules because eligibility for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and premium tax credits for coverage bought through federal and state Marketplaces is based on Internal Revenue Code definitions of income and household.  We’ve developed The Health Care Assister’s Guide to Tax Rules to help fill this need.

The guide provides basic information on relevant tax rules, including when someone is required to file taxes, what filing status options are available, the rules for claiming someone as a tax dependent, and what sources of income are taxable and therefore counted in determining eligibility for Medicaid, CHIP, and premium tax credits.  It also shows how Medicaid uses an individual’s tax filing status to determine who is in his or her household, and how Medicaid’s household rules differ from those used for premium tax credits.

Understanding these issues can help health care assisters work with applicants for health coverage, especially those who have complicated family situations or unpredictable sources of income or are not familiar with filing taxes.

Why the Ryan Plan Should Worry Those Who Are Concerned About the Affordable Housing Crisis, Part 1

July 31, 2014 at 12:33 pm

A centerpiece of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s poverty plan is the proposal to consolidate 11 safety net programs — including four housing assistance programs — into a single, flexible block grant to states.  Among its downsides, this proposal threatens to lead to reductions in funding that provides housing assistance to millions of low-income families and individuals.

My colleagues have already set out some of the reasons to be concerned by Chairman Ryan’s proposal:

  • Block grants have proven to be easy targets for funding cuts, in part because their inherent flexibility makes it difficult to demonstrate how cuts would affect needy families and communities.
  • Total funding to assist low-income families — from federal, state, and local sources combined — likely would also decline, because broad block grants afford states opportunities to use block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services.

Because housing assistance and SNAP make up more than 80 percent of Ryan’s Opportunity Grant, any cuts in block grant funding would very likely reduce families’ access to these programs, as my colleague LaDonna Pavetti has explained.

The history of housing and community development program funding shows the risk of funding cuts that rental assistance programs face under Ryan’s plan.  Funding for flexible block grant programs such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), HOME (which helps states and localities develop and preserve affordable homes for owners and renters), and the Native American Housing Block Grant has fallen sharply over time.  Meanwhile, programs that provide more narrowly prescribed forms of assistance to low-income families and that Congress funds separately each year — a category that includes housing vouchers, rural rental assistance, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and Public Housing, the four rental assistance programs that Ryan’s proposal targets — have generally avoided reductions (sequestration in 2013 notwithstanding). (See chart.)

The reasons are easy to understand.  For example, HUD provides Congress every year with precise estimates of the cost of renewing the Housing Choice Vouchers that assist more than 2 million low-income families.  If Congress fails to provide sufficient funding to renew the vouchers, some of those families will lose assistance (and possibly their homes).  In contrast, policymakers can justify cutting a block grant by claiming that local agencies can avoid cutting direct assistance to families by using their flexibility to shift funds from other activities.

Cuts in rental assistance would fall mainly on low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities and working-poor families with children.  More than 80 percent of households with rental assistance in 2010 were elderly, had a disability, worked, or had recently worked.  (2010 is the most recent year for which these data are available to us.)

Rising rents and stagnant incomes have left increasingly more low-income Americans unable to afford decent, stable housing without cutting back on other basic needs.  Already fewer than one in four eligible low-income families receive rental assistance due to funding limitations, and waiting lists are long.  The cuts that would likely result from the Ryan plan would make this shortfall more severe and thus leave more families struggling to pay the rent and keep their homes.