Taxes: the big weapon in the war on poverty

Over the years, tax policy has been a key tool in keeping the safety net that protects the nation's poor intact.

By , Guest blogger

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    A 2011 1040 tax form along with other income tax forms at the entrance of the Illinois Department of Revenue in Springfield, Ill. Taxes have been an important tool in the fight against poverty in the US.
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When Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty 50 years ago this month, he could not have imagined how many battles would be fought through the Tax Code.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the safety net was built almost entirely on spending programs.  Back then, policymakers created Medicare, Medicaid, student loan programs, and Head Start, and made food stamps permanent. They also increased Social Security benefits and housing subsidies for low-income families. Many, though not all, were aimed at the very poorest households.

But starting in the late 1970s, poverty programs changed dramatically. Tax subsidies played a bigger role and, as they did, beneficiaries were no longer just the very poor. Low-income and even middle-income working households also began getting assistance.

Recommended: How much do you know about taxes? Take the quiz.

The best example is the Earned Income Tax Credit. In 1976, government spent about $22 billion (in today’s dollars) on Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), then the nation’s major welfare program for poor households. By contrast, the EITC, created the year before, provided only about $5 billion in assistance.

By 2010—in the depths of the Great Recession— the successor program to AFDC, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF, paid about $27 billion in benefits. But it was dwarfed by an EITC that had grown to $61 billion. The Child Tax Credit, created in 1997, provided nearly $60 billion more to low- and moderate-income households.

Even as the tax-based safety net grew, so did the notion of using the tax code to encourage community development.  For example, in the 1980’s direct spending to build subsidized and government-operated housing for low-income people began to dry up. But in 1986, Congress created the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to encourage construction and rehabilitation of affordable rental housing.

In the mid- 1980s, Congress established Enterprise Zones as a way to use tax subsidies (and other tools) to drive economic development in certain low-income communities.  In the mid-1990s, it created a similar program for Empowerment Zones. In 2000, Congress developed yet another tax subsidy for economic development, the New Markets Tax Credit.

Tax incentives, of course, have become ubiquitous in all of our lives, no matter our income. The question, a half-century on from LBJ’s landmark speech, is whether the tax code is a reliable weapon in today’s version of the war on poverty.

To highlight the tax code’s central role, the Tax Policy Center is sponsoring a three-part program on Friday, January 24.

The leadoff panel will focus on the Revenue Code as safety net. It will include former Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, former director of the Congressional Budget Office Doug Holtz-Eakin, TPC’s Elaine Maag, and Chris Howard, professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary. David Wessel, long-time economics columnist at The Wall Street Journal and now Director of the Brookings Institution’s Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, will moderate.

The second panel, which I will moderate, will focus on the tax code’s role in enhancing development in low-income communities. Panelists will include Ingrid Gould Ellen, Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at NYU  and co-director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy; Michael Rich, Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at Emory University; and Brett Theodos of The Urban Institute.

Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, will wrap up the discussion with a luncheon speech.

If you’d like to join us, in person or on the Web, you can sign up here.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on taxvox.taxpolicycenter.org.

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