Monday, July 29, 2013
Citizens for Tax Justice, Reforming Individual Income Tax Expenditures: Congress Should End the Most Regressive Ones, Maintain the Progressive Ones, and Reform the Rest to Be More Progressive and Better Achieve Policy Goals:
To restore funding for public investments, Congress should enact a tax reform that reduces tax expenditures (subsidies provided through the tax code) to raise revenue. Some lawmakers have debated whether or not revenue saved from reducing tax expenditures should be used to reduce tax rates rather than finance needed public investments, an issue that has been addressed in previous CTJ reports. Less attention has been given to how Congress should prioritize which tax expenditures should be limited or reformed. This is particularly true of tax expenditures for individuals. (A future CTJ report will address tax expenditures for businesses.)
Tax expenditures can be evaluated based on three criteria: cost, progressivity and effectiveness in achieving non-tax policy goals. This report takes cost into account by focusing on the ten most costly tax expenditures for individuals, illustrated in the bar graph on the following page. This report evaluates these tax expenditures based on progressivity and effectiveness in achieving non-tax policy goals — which include subsidizing home ownership and encouraging charitable giving, increasing investment, encouraging work, and many other stated goals. Based on data from Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), this report
- Tax expenditures that take the form of breaks for investment income (capital gains and stock dividends) are the most regressive and least effective in achieving their stated policy goals, and therefore should be repealed.
- Tax expenditures that take the form of refundable credits based on earnings, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, are progressive and achieve their other main policy goal (encouraging work) and therefore should be preserved.
- Tax expenditures that take the form of itemized deductions are regressive and have mixed results in achieving their policy goals, and therefore should be reformed.
- Tax expenditures that take the form of exclusions for some forms of compensation from taxable income (like the exclusion of employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions) are not particularly regressive and have some success in achieving their policy goals, and therefore should be generally preserved.
This report draws partly on recent data from the Congressional Budget Office on the ten largest tax expenditures affecting individuals, which CBO concludes will cost more than $900 billion in 2013 and make up two-thirds of the cost of all federal tax expenditures. The graph above illustrates the revenue foregone in 2013 for each of the top ten tax expenditures for individuals in 2013.
These revenue amounts do not necessarily indicate how much would be raised by repealing one or more of these tax expenditures. (This is because people may respond to the repeal of one tax break by utilizing another more heavily or changing their behavior in other ways.) Nonetheless, these figures are useful for comparing the relative importance of tax expenditures.