Not All Tax Breaks Are Created Equal

By :: August 24th, 2011

It has become fashionable (I am happy to say) for  politicians to talk about ending or at least scaling back tax subsidies. But  pols mean very different things when they say this. And new analysis by the Tax  Policy Center shows that whether they help you or not often depends on how much  money you make and whether you get big benefits from other tax subsidies—and  thus can itemize your deductions.

When many conservatives talk about “closing tax loopholes”  they mean making sure that low-income people pay at least some tax. They  are offended that nearly half of households pay no income tax (though they often  fail to note that many do pay payroll and other taxes). When liberals talk  about ending tax subsidies, they have in mind raising taxes on corporations and  on the highest-income individuals. They--and Warren Buffett--are offended that  the rich pay relatively low tax rates even though their share of  national income (and wealth) is growing.

With this discordant rhetoric in mind, let’s take a look at who benefits most from three popular tax subsidies:

The Earned Income Tax Credit: This refundable credit is aimed at providing cash assistance to low-income working families. Not surprisingly, 80 percent of the benefit goes to households  making between $10,000 and $40,000—about 40 percent of all tax units. Even in  those income ranges, only about one in four families get the credit. The  average benefit for an EITC household making $20,000-$30,000 is more than $3,000. Not  a lot if you run a hedge fund, but a 12 percent boost in your after-tax income  if you are making the minimum wage.  Almost no-one who makes more than $75,000 receives any benefit from the earned-income credit.

The Charitable Deduction: In many ways, it is the mirror image of the EITC. Almost no households making less than $50,000 get any tax benefit at all from the charitable deduction. It is not because they are not generous givers—this group gave about  3.5 percent of their income in 2009, more than the 2.4 percent contributed by those making $100,000 or more.  Instead, it’s because they can only take the deduction if they itemize, and most households don’t. But while only 3 percent of the benefit of the charitable deduction goes to those making less than $50,000, nearly 85 percent goes to those making $100,000 or more, and more than one-quarter goes to the 0.3 percent of households making $1 million or more.

The mortgage interest deduction:  While the EITC mostly helps low-wage working families and the charitable deduction is a windfall for the highest-earners, the mortgage interest deduction targets most of its benefit to the middle-class and the rich—but not the super-rich. More than 40 percent of the benefit goes to those making between $100,000 and $200,000, and two-thirds goes to those making $100,000 to $500,000. Those making less than $50,000 get less than 4.5 percent of the tax break, even though they represent two-thirds of all tax units.

Keep in mind that I’m only talking about tax benefits here. There is no doubt, for example, that some low-income families benefit from the help of non-profits that are supported by tax-deductible charitable giving.

Still the lesson is clear: Not all tax subsidies are created equal. And many are not loopholes at all. But whatever you call them, the economic effects and the politics of each are very different. So next time you hear a politician pontificate about loophole-closers or revenue-raisers, you might want to ask just exactly what he or she is talking about.


  1. Michael Bindner  ::  4:13 pm on August 24th, 2011:

    The MID, if closed, should probably be dedicated to expanding a refundable Child Tax Credit, since deficit reduction won’t help housing but increasing the benefit for adding a child will be a boon to the housing industry, although not the McMansion builders.

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  3. Earlybird1  ::  8:28 am on August 25th, 2011:

    Show me a tax deduction and I’ll show you a badly designed policy. Take the earned income tax credit, your analysis shows a $3000 benefit for a minimum wage worker. Essentially, taxpayers are subsidizing businesses that pay the minimum wage by around $1.50 an hour. Why not just end the business subsidy by raising the federal minimum wage by $1.50?

  4. Vivian Darkbloom  ::  11:59 am on August 25th, 2011:

    I have, for some time, struggled with this idea of “tax expenditures”. Intuitively, the idea that a government policy that provides a deduction or exemption could be viewed as “spending” is very easy to understand. What difference, after all, does it make between sending a check to a homeowner or providing a mortgage interest deduction that has the same monetary value? So, I’ve been long puzzled as to why many conservatives should be so apparently opposed to eliminating “tax expenditures” if they are so opposed to government spending? A review of some of the older literature shed some light on this apparent dichotomy. Real conservatives believe that the starting point (the “baseline” if you will) should be to assume that each citizen is entitled to all the income he or she earns and not the government, so when the government gives some of your own money back, that’s hardly “spending”. One could simply eliminate all this “spending” by abolishing the tax code altogether. With the exception of refundable tax credits, without an income tax, you can’t have any “spending” through the tax code, either. This makes a lot of sense to me, too.

    As a pragmatist, I don’t expect nor do I advocate abolishing the income tax code. But I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that, like budget “baselines”, the current debate on tax expenditures serves only to obfuscate. We need to eliminate them more or less completely, not to reduce “spending” or to “increase taxes”, as such, but to restore some semblence of transparency and simplicity to the Code. And, whatever your ideological view about the nature of “tax expenditures”, it should be fairly clear to all that most of them distort economic behavior in ways that are not beneficial in the larger scheme. Abolishing them should be accompanied by a rationale debate about tax rates.

  5. Ralph H  ::  6:07 pm on August 25th, 2011:

    Most people making under $50,000 will not itemize and will take the standard deduction, which presumeably includes charitable deduction and some housing allowance (in lieu of mortgage interest deduction).

    Its not accurate to say they do not benefit, although there is no way to determine how much they would. Also, many in this category are renters or occupants of subsidized properties; they get the same staqndard deduction as those who own a home.