Economy

Tax cut arrives, and Americans ask what’s in it for them – and for country

Putting it in perspective

Most Americans can expect a modest tax cut, but changes in deductions and other measures will create new winners and losers, especially in later years. 

Members of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee (from left) Reps. Peter Roskam (R) of Illinois, Richard Neal (D) of Massachusetts, and Chairman Kevin Brady (R) of Texas appeared before the House Rules Committee Tuesday as Republicans moved to pass a sweeping $1.5 trillion GOP tax bill.
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Here’s the paradox of the Republican tax plan: It promises to deliver tax cuts to most Americans, but that doesn’t mean Americans like it.

Partly that reflects the politics of a bill that’s been widely publicized as favoring business and the wealthy over average households.

The plan, which cleared Congress with a House vote Wednesday, is also controversial because of projections that tax cuts will add to federal deficits at a time when the government chronically fails to balance its books – even during good times. [Editor's note: A timing reference in this paragraph has been updated.]

But it may also be that this bill is simply so fresh off the drawing boards that many Americans have little idea how it will affect their own pocketbooks.

A new CNN poll, which found 55 percent of Americans opposing the bill compared with 33 percent in support, also found that almost twice as many people think it’ll make them worse off rather than better off personally.

In St. Cloud, Minn., middle-school teacher Jeff Vogel has crunched some of the numbers and sees a tax cut on the way. He reckons his family will benefit from a doubling of the standard deduction, since currently they rely on that rather than itemizing various deductions such as property taxes. And although the law will eliminate personal exemptions, the family stands to gain from the bill’s expanded child tax credit.

“It’s going to help our taxes out quite a bit,” he says of the tax bill, “but I would much rather see that money go towards lowering our national debt and helping improve programs.”

Many Americans, like Mr. Vogel, aren’t judging the bill so much by whether it helps their own finances in the near term, but by whether they believe it helps Americans have a stronger and fairer economy. While many believe tax cuts especially for business will make the American economy more competitive, many others worry about rising deficits and a growing rich-poor gap.

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee speaks to reporters as Congress prepares to vote on the biggest reshaping of the US tax code in three decades, on Capitol Hill Dec. 19. He was a conservative hold-out against the tax overhaul, partly because it's expected to add to future federal deficits. He became a "yes" in recent days, but the measure has no Democrats in Congress supporting it.
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Alongside all that, though, are very real impacts on household finances, including decisions some taxpayers may want to make before the end of this calendar year.

“Most people should see at least somewhat of a tax cut,” says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax expert at Wolters Kluwer accounting firm near Chicago. 

A skewing in benefits

The GOP plan benefits all income groups, at least initially, and as that becomes better understood, it’s possible that public opinion could become more supportive of the measure. But what’s also true is this: The individual tax cuts aren’t permanent (they’ll expire after 2025 unless a future Congress renews them) and the measure’s biggest benefits flow to the richest Americans.

Also, whether you like the tax plan or not, it isn’t doing much to simplify the tax code, notwithstanding Republican pitches about allowing people to file their returns on postcards.

“The biggest change is probably the increase in the standard deduction,” which roughly doubles to $24,000 for a married couple filing jointly, Mr. Luscombe says. That means the already large majority of US tax filers who don’t itemize deductions will get even larger, he says.

“That's about the only simplification in the bill that I see…. A lot of the complications are really from tax breaks to help lower your taxes,” and are popular, Luscombe says. “It's sort of social engineering through the tax code to try to help [people with] housing or education or retirement or health care.”

Pretty much all those provisions remain in place, sometimes with alterations.

Modest cuts for many

But with complexity can come uncertainty. A driving impetus behind the bill has been Republicans’ longstanding goal of cutting corporate tax rates, to help America compete globally for jobs and investment. But to pass the bill without Democratic support, using their narrow Senate majority, Republicans put a priority on making those corporate changes permanent, while allowing individual rate cuts to expire after 2025.

Moreover, even when individual rates do go down next year, that doesn’t mean all will pay lower taxes.

The tax bill gives rate cuts with one hand, while curbing many deductions with the other. So while tax cuts are broad, they aren’t particularly deep and they don’t reach everyone. A single person making, say, $28,000 a year would see an average drop of 0.5 percent per year – or about $140, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).

As one’s income goes up, so does the percentage change in taxes paid. A married couple making $90,000 a year would see an average drop of 1.4 percent, or $1,260; a professional making $300,000, a 2.5 percent drop ($7,500) and so on. The one exception are those who make at least $1 million. They would get a 2.3 percent drop, but that still results in huge tax savings averaging $23,000.

While many Republicans say that’s fair, given that higher income Americans currently pay the most in taxes, Democrats decry the plan as redistribution in the wrong direction at a time of widening inequality.

Here are key details of how the tax plan will affect individuals and families:

Rate cuts: The breadth of the tax cuts is most obvious in the new tax rates the plan will establish. Although the rate remains 10 percent for the first $9,525 in income – the next rate is 12 percent for income up to $38,700 (instead of the current 15 percent) and then 22 percent for up to $82,500 (instead of the current 25 percent), and so on. The top rate, for those earning $500,000 or more, drops to 37 percent from today’s 39.6 percent. The new lower rates also apply to couples filing jointly and other households.

Standard deduction: Under current tax law, single filers can exclude $6,500 from their income. Starting next year that jumps to $12,000, and to $24,000 for joint filers.

Local-tax deduction: Up to $10,000 in taxes paid to state and local government (property plus either income or sales taxes) will be deductible. The cap imposes a disproportionate hit on higher-earning residents of high-tax states.

Other deductions: A range of other deductions and credits are reduced or eliminated. The personal exemption is eliminated. The mortgage interest deduction remains, but is now capped on new loans up to $750,000, and interest on home equity loans no longer gets a break. Moving expenses, job-search expenses, and tax-preparation fees are no longer deductible. Credits for adoption and purchasing electric vehicles remain in place.

Family tax credits: The child tax credit is doubled to $2,000 per child, and it’s more available to both high earners (up to $400,000 in come) and low earners (up to $1,400 of the credit is refundable). The bill creates a $500 credit for non-child dependents such as aging parents.

Education: Republicans also backed off controversial moves on education, such as taxing graduate students’ tuition waivers. The bill preserves various college tax credits, plus deductions for up to $2,500 in interest on student loans, and up to $250 in teacher-bought school supplies. Tax-sheltered saving will now be allowed for private elementary and high school costs, not just for college, within so-called 529 plans

Obamacare: The “individual mandate,” a centerpiece of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is effectively being repealed as of 2019. People will no longer face a possible tax penalty if they don’t have health insurance. Republicans say it’s a win for consumer choice, canceling an unpopular part of Obamacare without canceling its subsidies for individual insurance. Critics say that with reduced participation, premiums will soar and millions more Americans will become uninsured. Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine fought for GOP commitments to pass follow-on legislation aimed at buoying health-insurance markets as this change takes effect.

Phaseouts: Unlike the bill’s corporate tax cuts, which are permanent, the cuts for individuals are set to expire, so most Americans would be paying more taxes by 2027 than they do under the current law, according to the JCT. In part, that’s because one permanent change in the bill is to use a different measure of inflation (called a “chained” consumer price index) when adjusting the income scales for each tax bracket from year to year.

One exception to the overall phaseout of individual tax cuts: The upper-middle class and the wealthy appear on track to have their taxes remain lower after 2025.

“While the details of the TCJA [Tax Cuts and Jobs Act] have changed throughout the congressional debate, the basic story of the bill has remained the same,” writes Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center in a blog post.

Plan now for 2018?

For the next eight years, however, an altered tax code is the new reality of life for everyone.

Kathy Pickering, executive director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block, says it’s time for taxpayers to consider getting some professional advice or help. (H&R Block is preparing online aids, like a calculator.)

Some decisions are already upon taxpayers. Ms. Pickering says that in the next week, some people may benefit from paying their property-tax bill early (so it’s deductible in the current calendar year), ahead of the coming $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions.

People who like to accrue a tax refund each year, as a kind of forced savings plan, may want to keep watch on how their withholding changes under the new rates.

“This is a great time to do some W-4 planning,” Pickering says, referring to the paycheck changes that may happen in February, once government formulas are reset.

– Bailey Bischoff, on the Monitor staff in Boston, contributed reporting for this story

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