Stimulating the Stimulus—child credit and EITC

The stimulus bill working its way through Congress would make both the child tax credit (CTC) and the earned income tax credit (EITC) available to more low-income workers. The CTC would phase in at lower income levels for the poorest working families, raising after-tax income for the neediest and most likely encouraging them to spend additional income. The EITC would increase for larger families, also giving more cash to families likely to spend quickly.

Both proposals would deliver substantial bang-for-the-buck quickly if families get the additional income right away. But in general, they can’t or won’t.  Few would see any benefit until they file their 2009 tax returns in 2010. That’s a slow stimulus.

Yes, workers can have their employers add advanced EITC payments to their paychecks to get immediate benefit. But less than 2 percent of recipients choose that option. Most either like the idea of a big tax refund in April or fear having to pay back overpayments.

Both credits could arrive faster if the IRS could allow 2009 credits based on 2008 tax returns. It did that successfully with the 2008 tax rebates: Congress created the rebates in January and the IRS delivered most payments by the summer.

And, sure, advancing the credits would complicate 2009 tax returns—the IRS reports lots of questions about last year’s rebates as taxpayers work on their 2008 returns. Some families that wouldn’t qualify in 2009 would get the credit based on 2008 income and other families would have to wait until 2010. But we know this overall approach can work because it did last year.

The biggest tax provision in the stimulus provisions bill is the Making Work Pay credit, which would show up quickly in paychecks for all but the poorest workers (who have little or no withholding to reduce) and the rich (who are ineligible). Speeding up payment of the additional CTC and EITC benefits would quickly help the families most in need and most likely to spend.