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Welfare, subsidies, and tax credits: words that shape the deficit debate

In much public discourse, direct government aid for the poor is easily dismissed by the pejorative “welfare,” Gleckman writes, but spending-like subsidies administered through the revenue code provoke far less outrage.

By Guest blogger / February 27, 2013

A jogger runs past the US Internal Revenue Service building at the end of the day in Washington. Many tax preferences are economically indistinguishable from direct spending, Gleckman writes, and often add far more to the deficit.

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Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has created quite a stir with his estimates that every household below the poverty level receives an average of $168-a-day (or about $61,000-a-year) in government welfare.

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Howard Gleckman is a resident fellow at The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, the author of Caring for Our Parents, and former senior correspondent in the Washington bureau of Business Week. (http://taxvox.taxpolicycenter.org)

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Sessions’ calculations are extremely controversial and overstate the amount of government assistance for those in poverty. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume he’s right. How would $61,000 in direct government spending and refundable tax credits for the poor stack up against tax subsidies for the rich?

It isn’t even close. Indeed, my colleagues at the Tax Policy Center figure that in 2011 households making $1 million and up got that much in average tax benefits from just two deductions–for charitable gifts and state and local taxes. Add a fistful of other preferences–such as deductions for mortgage interest and exclusions such as the one for employer-sponsored health insurance– and top-bracket households got far more in tax benefits than the poor got in means-tested assistance.   

These estimates exclude low tax rates on capital gains and dividends which are, arguably, very different from, say, subsidies for mortgage interest or employer-sponsored health insurance. If you include preferential rates on investment income, households making $1 million or more got an additional $119,000 in tax benefits, on average, in 2011. 

Keep in mind that tax rates on ordinary income were relatively low in 2011. Now that the rate for high-income households has gone up significantly, their tax subsidies will be even more generous.

I readily admit that on one level, this is a fairly silly exercise.  But there is an important point here: In much public discourse, direct government aid for the poor is easily dismissed by the pejorative “welfare.”  Yet, spending-like subsidies administered through the revenue code provoke far less outrage. This is true even though many of these tax preferences are economically indistinguishable from direct spending and often add far more to the deficit.

Take housing, for instance. CBO figures that the lowest-income 20 percent of households get an average of about $1,100-a-year in means-tested rental housing assistance. TPC estimates that the lowest-income households got no benefit from tax deductions for mortgage interest and real estate taxes in 2011. But those in the top 20 percent, who make more than $100,000, got an average tax benefit of $2,900. Those in the top 1 percent, who make an average of $1.5 million, did even better. They got an average tax break of $5,700, more than five times the benefit the government provided low-income renters.

As with so much of the tax code, these homeowner tax benefits are upside down. On average, the more you make, the more you get. This seems an odd design in an era when fiscal restraint is all the rage. Yet politicians still recoil when tax expenditures—the vast bulk of which go to middle-class and high-income households—are described as subsidies.

In recent years, both Democrats and Republicans (including their recent presidential candidates) did talk about capping or limiting tax preferences for the highest income households. But so far, at least, that talk has come to nothing. It would be helpful if Sen. Sessions directed some of his outrage to the more than $1 trillion in tax expenditures that litter the revenue code—much of which go to those who need help the least.

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