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.
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.
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.
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.
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