October 22, 2015
policy-analysis equivalent of questioning the cuteness of puppies.
Veronique de Rugy, of the Mercatus Center, and Chris Edwards, of the Cato Institute, have
dared to doubt the efficacy and morality of the earned income tax credit
(EITC). Their brief-but-brave takedown of a program adored by left and right,
Democrats and Republicans, exposes one of the ugliest methods fedpols use to
meddle with the economy.
was enacted in 1975 as a “temporary” measure. The IRS
describes it as “a benefit for working people with low to moderate income.
To qualify, you must meet certain requirements and file a tax return, even if
you do not owe any tax or are not required to file. EITC reduces the amount of
tax you owe and may give you a refund.”
Scholar Laurence M.
Vance noted that “Senators Russell Long and Lloyd Bentsen made [the
EITC] their ‘signature initiative.’ … Ronald Reagan heralded it as ‘the best anti-poverty,
the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.’
Clinton’s Labor Secretary Robert Reich advocated its expansion, along with the
minimum wage, to give everyone in the bottom half of society ‘a chance to get
on the escalator.’”
Income Tax Credit: Small Benefits, Large Cost,” de Rugy and Edwards
contrast the majestic rhetoric with several inescapable realities. To start,
the EITC “is a huge program,” providing 28 million tax filers about $69 billion
worth of goodies. Some of the value represents revenue not poured into
Washington’s coffers, but most -- 88 percent -- is spending. In all, the credit
is “the largest federal cash transfer program for low-income households.”
got so expensive because Congress expanded its “size and scope … in numerous
laws over the decades.” Recipients have more than doubled since 1990.
(Population growth was just 30 percent.) Its current maximum value is $6,242 --
no small sum for workers in the cellar of the pay scale.
proponents, de Rugy and Edwards write, “implicitly favor cutting market wages
for low earners” by encouraging greater labor force participation. “The labor-supply
effect … also means that the program acts partly as a subsidy to businesses
that hire lower-skilled workers because they are able to pay reduced market
qualifying for the EITC progress along a path in which the credit phases in,
remains flat, and phases out. Employees “have an incentive to reduce hours
worked in both the flat and phase-out ranges of the credit” -- and 75 percent
of EITC claimers “are in those two ranges where the work incentives are
negative.” Econ 101 dictates that the effect is a reduction in “overall U.S.
output and employment.”
weakness of the EITC,” de Rugy and Edwards argue, “is the program’s high rate
of overpayments, which are caused by math errors, misunderstanding of the the
rules, and fraud.” A 2013 audit of the program by the Treasury Inspector
General for Tax Administration found that the IRS had not “made … significant
improvement in reducing improper [EITC] payments.” The service’s claim that
somewhere between 21 to 25 percent of payments were improper in 2012 wasn’t
credible, auditors concluded, because “the laws extending increases in the EITC
were not factored into the estimates.”
architecture is another EITC sin: “Benefits change as income rises, with four
phase-in rates and three phase-out rates. It is adjusted by filing status and
number of children. The rules regarding child eligibility are complex due to
issues such as separation and divorce. There are rules and calculations
regarding earned income, investment income, and adjusted gross income.”
invites “dishonest filers,” motivated by a share of the refundable cash.
“[U]nscrupulous tax preparation firms prey on unsuspecting workers, including
many immigrants who have poor English skills. For a fee, firms help workers
file claims, and they also provide loans in anticipation of EITC refunds.
Typically, half of the EITC tax returns completed by paid preparers overclaim
EITC, de Rugy and Edwards recommend, should be scrapped, and replaced with
“policies to boost wages and increase job growth.” The authors suggest cutting
the corporate income tax, but a privatized pension system -- funded with a
much-lower payroll tax -- deserves to be on the list of alternatives. So should
cuts/repeals of Washington’s levies on tobacco, alcohol, and transportation
fuels, which disproportionately burden households of modest means.
is marked by “errors and fraud, disincentives to increase earnings … and
deadweight losses.” It’s no exemplar of enlightened, bipartisan government.
It’s an unaffordable and failed tool for social engineering.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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