Not all tax breaks are created equal

The meanings behind three popular types of tax subsidies, and who benefits the most from each.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Tax forms are displayed at the front desk of the IRS office in the JFK Federal Building in Boston, Massachusetts. Different types of tax subsidies don't benefit everyone equally.

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.

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