This post originally appeared on TaxVox.
Taxes aren’t just about raising money for government. Policymakers engaging in tax reform must recognize how their decisions can disrupt markets for a wide range of economic activity, including healthcare, housing, and charitable giving. Some of those behavioral reactions may be secondary and unintended, but they can’t be ignored.
The Tax Policy Center has described some of the potential impacts of President Trump’s tax ideas on charitable giving and in the way businesses organize themselves. But it’s worth looking at two other examples—health insurance and homeownership—to see how tax changes can affect economic behavior. In both examples, tax reform can improve efficiency and equity, but only if it is well designed.
Employer-provided Health Insurance.
In a recent press conference, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn implied that Trump’s tax plan could limit existing tax breaks for employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI). It would be one of a long list of tax preferences that Administration may target.
But any significant cut in subsidies for ESI could lead employers to reduce or even eliminate health insurance as part of employee compensation. The effects of such a decision could be substantial and most likely change the way people get health insurance. Tax reform must be designed with regard to its effects on subsidies offered through the Affordable Care Act or the House’s recently passed replacement.
For many years, health policy experts have suggested replacing the ESI exclusion with a tax credit. But the ACA and the House bill, and their related costs, largely depend upon retaining the ESI exclusion while adding subsides for those who buy outside the employer market.
The ACA’s exchange subsidy is larger for many employees than the value of their exclusion. Thus, employers already have some incentive to drop ESI coverage, send employees to an exchange, and share the net savings. Yet, so far, few have done so in part due to uncertainty about the future of the ACA and the reluctance of managers to give up their existing coverage. It is not clear how employers would respond to tax reform under the ACA or the House’s credits, which are less generous but in some cases more flexible.
Tax Subsidies for Housing
Although Cohn insists that “homeownership would be protected” under Trump’s tax plan, the Administration is considering several proposals that would significantly reduce incentives to buy housing.
Here are just three examples: Lowering tax rates would make the mortgage interest deduction less valuable. Eliminating property tax deductions as part of a repeal of the state and local tax deduction could raise taxes for homeowners who itemize. And doubling the standard deduction would significantly reduce the number of taxpayers taking deductions for mortgage interest.
In this new world, renters would increase in numbers and the number of homeowners would decline.
Like the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, the tax subsidies for homeownership are both inefficient and inequitable. They provide an incentive mainly to those who need it least because the benefits are concentrated among those with higher incomes.
While it might make sense as a matter of tax policy to give middle-income individuals a higher standard deduction in lieu of the opportunity to itemize expenses, does it make sense as a matter of housing policy to leave a mortgage interest deduction concentrated on a select few taxpayers, largely with incomes well above average? And to what extent should equity owners, who still maintain an incentive to own homes, as opposed to taking out their equity and putting it into a saving account, be favored relative to borrowers? After all, younger and wealth-constrained, households are the ones most in need of borrowed funds to own their first homes, and they already have a far smaller share of total societal wealth than they did a generation ago
Providing some alternative incentive, such as to new homeowners, might help address some of these housing policy issues.
My concerns are not intended to throw cold water on tax reform. But they are a warning about the importance of doing it right.
Tax subsidies for health insurance and homeownership do need reform, but policymakers must ask themselves whether their new tax system creates the right set of incentives for the right people and integrates well with spending programs aimed at the some of the same objectives. They must also be sure to adjust as necessary to avoid undesirable behavioral responses. If they don’t, they may weaken or even destroy the benefits of reform.
This post originally appeared in TaxVox.
The Trump Administration and congressional Republicans remain stalemated over how to “repeal and replace” the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA). One major problem: The House approach in the American Health Care Act (AHCA) is highly unlikely to pass Congress when it increases the number of uninsured by 23 million, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. Real reform needs a better set of building blocks. Here I address one of those building blocks: how to replace the ACA’s individual mandate in a way that satisfies both Democratic goals for coverage and Republican concerns that government shouldn’t mandate what citizens must buy. What is the alternative? Simply make some existing government benefits, particularly tax benefits, conditional upon buying health insurance.
Such a step could also be made at least as progressive as the ACA’s mandate, which would please Democrats. And it would replace the use of a whole new penalty tax structure surrounding the ACA’s mandate, a step that should please Republicans.
Fair and efficient reform of ACA requires recognizing the logic behind individual responsibility to purchase insurance, an idea long favored by many researchers and public officials across the ideological spectrum. If government is going to support those in need, whether through Medicaid, uncompensated care, or, under some new government subsidy, how should it treat those who don’t buy health insurance even if they have the financial resources to do so? Equal justice suggests that a household making, say, $50,000 but effectively paying $10,000 to buy insurance—for instance, through lower cash compensation when receiving employer-provided insurance—shouldn’t have to subsidize other households with the same income but who don’t buy insurance.
That problem arises whenever government safety nets protect those who don’t insure against future needs but becomes particularly acute in health care when, as both Democrats and Republicans have now accepted, health insurance companies cannot exclude people with “pre-existing” conditions. Without some individual responsibility requirement, what is there to prevent people from going without insurance until they turn ill?
Democrats want to keep some requirement for individual responsibility to maintain the ACA’s coverage expansion. But why can’t Republicans find an acceptable alternative?
It’s simple math. Since adding millions to the roles of the uninsured seems politically unacceptable, the alternatives are to increase government benefits and the taxes needed to support them, or impose an even higher unfunded mandate on providers to care for the uninsured. Some commentators already believe that enactment of a House-like bill would eventually result in a universal system like Medicare for all, an unsatisfactory outcome for Republicans.
We are left with this: The federal government now spends about three-tenths of its entire non-interest budget on health care, and the share is increasing rapidly. In this expensive healthcare world, government supports should be targeted toward those who need help the most.
While the ACA’s mandate moves in the direction of establishing equal treatment of those with equal ability to buy insurance, it levies a penalty for most people that is far lower than the cost of insurance. According to a calculator provided by the Tax Policy Center, the 2016 penalty was $991 for a single person making $50,000 or $2,085 for a family of four. By contrast, the IRS indicates that an average “bronze” premium insurance policy would cost several times more: for an individual, about $2,700, and for a family of four, $10,700.
Making purchase of health insurance a condition for receiving other government benefits removes the philosophical and, for some, constitutional hang-up over whether government should mandate that we buy something. Instead, Congress could simply make health insurance a condition for opting to take some other benefits such as standard deduction, itemized deductions, or child credit. If we can get some more permanent agreement on some individual responsibility payment, the IRS can start to adjust withholding by employers for employees who don’t have employer insurance or declare otherwise that they have insurance. This would reduce end-of-the-year problems in collecting money from people who may not have any easy way to pay a penalty.
While some also suggest allowing insurance companies to charge higher premiums for those who buy insurance only when they get sick, that penalty is likely to be either too low to be effective or too high to be affordable by those who only seek insurance once sick.
In sum, any replacement structure for the ACA requires solid building blocks. Repealing and replacing the individual mandate with a conditional limit on the receipt of other government tax benefits offers one possibly bipartisan way to expand coverage, save government costs, and improve tax administration. To it, of course, must be added a subsidy system for those with too little income to afford insurance. The combination can be made as progressive or more progressive than the ACA. As noted, however, inattention to a requirement for individual responsibility will in the long run probably only add to the load that must be supported by the building block of government subsidies.
This post originally appeared in TaxVox.
In the March and April 2017 print editions of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I proposed both a public and a private sector initiative for strengthening charities. These included improved tax policies as well as steps charities could take independently of any legislation. These initiatives aim to increase charitable giving of income, wealth, and time.
My organizing principle was simple: First, make tax subsidies more effective and efficient. Second, improve the way charities market themselves. Neither Congress nor the charitable sector has ever approached either task in a comprehensive way. The articles are here and here, with permission of the Chronicle.
Here, briefly, are my suggestions:
What government can do:
- Allow all taxpayers—even current non-itemizers—to claim a deduction for contributions above some minimum amount.
- Extend the deduction to gifts made by April 15 or filing of one’s tax return—similar to the extended contribution date for Individual Retirement Account contributions– rather than December 31 of the previous calendar year.
- Create a better donation-reporting system to IRS to reduce tax non-compliance, with a reward of an extra deduction for those donations; the improved tax compliance should more than pay for the extra reward.
- Make it easier for individuals to make donations from their IRA accounts.
- Reduce and simplify the excise tax on foundations.
- Encourage charitable bequests, especially if the estate tax is cut or repealed.
What charities can do, independently from government:
- Create a national campaign to promote giving, such as:
- Tell simple but powerful human-interest stories extolling generous people.
- Help donors identify worthy programs by promoting access to useful sources of information on each charity.
- Encourage people to give to charity when they settle disputes.
- Help people understand better their potential to give out of wealth, not just income, and to leave lasting legacies:
- Run endowment campaigns.
- Encourage wealth advisers to promote charitable giving.
Today charities feel under siege. They fear they are about to lose direct government support if Congress cuts domestic spending that funds the specific programs they run. And they worry that lawmakers will trim tax benefits for charitable giving by individuals and firms. Their concerns are legitimate but, in truth, over the many decades I have worked with charities on public policy issues, their advocacy has nearly always felt defensive.
Charities can easily become collateral damage from policies that are not aimed directly at them. Congress won’t decide broad issues such as size of government, tax rates, limits on tax incentives, or the share of revenues that should come from income taxes (the only tax where there is a charitable deduction) solely or primarily based on their effect on the charitable sector.
Thus charities must think longer-term as the nation is struggles to define a modern set of public policies and societal goals relevant to 21st century needs and opportunities. My suggestions are intended to extend well beyond any current political battle, no matter which party controls government at any point. Their goal is to strengthen the charitable sector, by improving both government incentives and the outreach and self-examination by non-profits themselves.
Fighting to maintain the status quo is not a strategic option. Nor should every charity expect to come out unscathed in this rapidly changing environment. But the US is facing important choices as it decides the direction and size of government in the Trump era. That debate ought to include a broad look at charities in this new environment and whether that includes strengthening, though reforming, the role of charities in American life.
This post originally appeared on TaxVox.
President Trump came into office promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, abandon key multinational trade agreements, build a wall and send immigrants home, and reform the tax code. Many Democrats have sworn to oppose him at every turn. On the first three items, he has already faced obstacles or stalemate and even temporarily left the battleground. But are these debates really about substantive reform that improves people’s lives? Or mainly over capturing symbols that appeal to each party’s base? Those goals aren’t the same.
Reform defies easy party or ideological labels because it often focuses not on bigger or smaller government but fixing poorly-functioning operations, establishing greater equity among households, or adapting to new circumstances. With health, immigration, trade, and tax policy the need for constant real improvement conflicts with important, but often-counterproductive, fights over political symbolism.
Health Reform. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) passed the Senate, backers knew it had flaws. They hoped to fix them later in the legislative process, but the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy cost Democrats their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and made the fixes or amendments requiring a new Senate vote virtually impossible. As a result, the healthcare community and households continue to grapple with an imperfect environment: Gains from expanded insurance coverage have been offset by slower than expected take-up rates, especially among young adults, for ACA marketplace policies, ongoing uncertainty about Medicaid expansions, and failure to come to grips with the full impact of health cost growth, often outside of Obamacare, on the federal budget.
Congress and President Trump have a chance to repair those problems, but both parties find themselves in a box. Republicans can’t accept any reforms that allow Democrats to claim “Obamacare” is being preserved, while many Democrats can’t swallow changes that acknowledge the ACA’s failures.
Trade Reform. Trade is another case where political symbolism impedes needed change. No doubt, our trading partners at times violate the spirit and even treaty letter of “fair” trade (so does the US), but trade agreements are the very vehicle for limiting such violations. Rather than repairing these understandings, political symbolism demands they be torn up or abandoned. Thus, instead of reviving and revising the Transpacific Partnership, which might have enhanced US trade in Asia, the Trump Administration has scrapped it.
Any successful trade agreement must strengthen rather than weaken international commerce if it is to promote economic growth without raising consumer prices. But trade debates occur on treacherous political ground. Any shift in trade, no matter how good or bad, almost inevitably reduces demand for some US-made products and hurts the workers producing those goods, thereby creating a new group of populists who will cry “foul” that the President and Congress have once again abandoned workers.
Immigration Reform. People suffering from persecution, hunger, or lack of human rights will try to escape those horrors and find new opportunity. So it has always been and will always be. Borders are porous enough that there are tens of millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, in the United States and much of Europe. Meanwhile, immigrants grow as a share of developed nations’ total populations, partly due to relatively low-birthrates in the existing populations. We can reduce opportunities for legal entry, step up border patrols, build walls, and send even more people back to their prior country of residence. But none of those actions really address the basic economic and social forces at play, while temporary symbolic political victories leave millions of families fearful of breakup, reduce domestic output by immigrant workers, and hurt America’s image as the home of freedom for people around the globe.
Tax Reform. In taxation, the symbolic fights almost always center on the size of government and progressivity. Yet many of the tax code’s real problems are that it is inefficient, complex, and treats those with equal incomes unequally and inequitably. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 neatly focused on the latter issues by making no significant change in either revenues or progressivity. But even in its early stages, the debate over a 2017 tax reform has already been muddled by a cacophony of mutually inconsistent goals: Reduce tax rates for multinational corporations and cut taxes for the middle class while not increasing the deficit or raising anyone’s taxes.
As long as lawmakers fight mainly over symbols rather than substance, they are unlikely to achieve many real improvements in policy. And tax reform will follow along the path down which health, immigration, and trade reform already seem headed.
Without fanfare, a bipartisan group of Representatives has introduced a bill that could bring Social Security’s finances close to long-term balance. Labeled the “Save Our Social Security Act of 2016,” the proposal also recognizes an important fact: that the longer we delay reform, the more it will cost post-babyboom generations.
Gen X and Y and Millennials are already scheduled to pay more for their benefits than boomers and older generations no matter what path we take to reform. Whether we raise payroll taxes, use more income taxes to pay off Social Security obligations, or cut benefits, someone must pay. Delaying reform only increases the burden on the young.
The “SOS Act,” as it is called, was introduced by five Republicans and one Democratic member of the House. Co-sponsors Reid Ribble (R–WI) and Dan Benishek (R–MI) were joined by Jim Cooper (D–TN), Cynthia Lummis (R–WY), Scott Rigell (R–VA), and Todd Rokita (R–IN). They pieced together the proposal using an interactive tool offered by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. (Disclosure: I serve on the committee’s board of directors).
The bill contains these primary features (listed in order of their ability to shrink Social Security deficits; the last two would raise deficits):
- Increase the “normal retirement age” (NRA) by two months per year until it reaches 69 for those turning 62 in 2034. Thereafter, it indexes the NRA to increases in longevity, so that the fraction of a lifetime spent in retirement stops growing.
- Levy the OASDI tax on 90% of covered earnings.
- Use a more accurate measure of inflation to determine Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), so that benefits fall by about one-third of one percent per year.
- When calculating average Social Security earnings, count a few more years than the 35 top-earning years, thereby creating a more accurate (and usually lower) measure of the share of a worker’s average lifetime earnings that will be replaced under the Social Security benefit formula.
- Under Social Security’s current design, the first dollars of average lifetime earnings are replaced at a 90% rate, the next dollars at a 32% rate, and the last dollars at a 15% rate; under the new proposal, the 15% rate would drop to 5% for those in that top earnings bracket.
- Raise annual benefits by roughly $1,000 a year for those with more than 20 years of coverage, and let that amount grow at the average wage growth rate.
- Set a special minimum benefit so that, for instance, workers with 20 years of coverage would receive a benefit no lower than the poverty level, and increase the minimum benefit by the average wage growth rate instead of the inflation rate.
These changes would bring the Social Security system close to long-term solvency. Enough taxes would accrue to pay full benefits not only for 75 years, but also to roughly cover benefits in the 75th and later years. By contrast, the last major reform (in 1983) didn’t close the long-term gap.
Almost as soon as that Reagan-era bill was passed and signed, its failure to cover the period after 75 years led Social Security actuaries to declare the system’s finances out of balance. The solvency issue would pop up again under subsequent presidents. The SOS Act, however, would restore balance, and do so equitably: by closing one-third of the funding gap through tax increases, one-third through progressive rate changes, and one-third through adjustments in the retirement age.
The bill can still be improved. It could do more, at a fairly moderate cost, to help those with below-median lifetime incomes. (As a member of the bipartisan 1999 National Commission on Retirement Policy, I was among the first to propose higher minimum benefits as a way to address distributional issues and improve benefits for low and moderate-income elderly.) The bill could also address the structure of survivor and spousal benefits, which is built on the notion of a stereotypical mid-20th century household with a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home wife. It could also address the negative economic consequences of keeping the early retirement age at 62 no matter how long people live.
For those who are interested, Social Security’s assessment of the bill’s consequences is helpful to read but it can also be misleading. The assessment implies that future retirees’ income replacement rates will fall relative to those of current retirees. That’s true only if Americans keep retiring as early as they currently do. In fact, many people (except those with the highest incomes) could enjoy an increase in replacement rates simply by working an additional year for every year the average life expectancy improves.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Retirement Income Journal.
Like many others, I have found it difficult to maintain a sense of optimism this campaign season. I’m less anxious about the candidates, whatever their limitations, than about how much we, the public, seem to tolerate—even at times support—campaigns whose modus operandi focuses on attacking others, whether other candidates, parties, or populations other than our own. I always worry when any of us (including myself) seeks an enemy on which to re-anchor a threatened political or religious belief or simply project discontent. At a minimum, this way of tackling our problems retards progress by failing to focus on what we can do together. More dangerously, it portends either disintegration or authoritarianism when it arises in decent times or periods of limited growth, thereby gaining potential to explode in times of true distress. If you want evidence, just look at the retreat from democracy in some developed nations throughout the 20th century or today in Turkey, Hungary, and, potentially, Austria and parts of Western Europe.
A day at the Boston marathon more than took away my gloom. I went there to cheer on my stepdaughter and a friend with whom I have worked at an Alexandria community foundation. It wasn’t just their fortitude and courage, as well as the efforts of thousands of other runners, that inspired me. My faith in humanity was restored by the extraordinary support of the public. There they were by the hundreds of thousands, from one end of the course to the other, cheering on everyone who passed by.
There were no class divisions for whom the bystanders cheered; everyone was a hero for trying. The runners ranged from the world’s best to those who barely had the stamina and body parts to survive—or maybe that’s my own projection of what I would look like out there. When the mobility impaired ran by, the cheers got even louder. No one was a stranger. Each public cheerleader only competed to see who could be loudest and support the most runners. Local bands found a street corner on which to play. Businesses gave out ice cream and other free goodies. Conversations flourished among absolute strangers. One of my companions broke into tears witnessing the community response.
Survivors of the 2013 terrorist attack also ran, making clear that fear—the only thing that can make terrorism succeed—would not deter them. Ken Ballen, the brilliant president of Terror Free Tomorrow, has long stressed that terrorists need a community to thrive or even survive. Such communities can form around, or in response to, blaming or distrusting others; they disconnect from the people and communities around them that don’t share their views. They are the exact opposite of what I observed of Boston that day. Thus, despite the very real pain in Boston, as well as San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Charleston, and other parts of the country attacked by individual terrorists or fanatics, our nation still thrives because of the strength and resilience of our communities.
So thank you, Boston. Your actions do more than inspire me. They drive me to undertake actions that include, unite, and ultimately strengthen the communities in which I work, play, and live. Whatever happens in the remaining campaign season, I can only pray that our leaders, whether newly elected or reelected, will learn from and follow your lead.
Despite their divergent policy views, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have many similarities that help explain their success in this election season. Pay attention: these lessons will be taken up, for better or worse, by future candidates seeking office in an unreformed system and by those in Congress, the states, or the political parties seeking reform after viewing with disdain the 2016 primary election process. With one exception, I list these common attributes in what I consider their rough order of importance to this and future campaigns: initial fame, use of identity politics through appeal to an excluded group, wealth, Ivy League pedigree, New York connections, presidential campaign experience, a sense of entitlement, and birth year.
- Fame. From the beginning, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the most famous candidates in their respective parties, even before the media facilitated Trump’s further rise by granting him an extraordinary share of the attention. Correspondingly, the weakest candidates also tended to be the least famous. Initial fame has usually been quite important to both parties, though a bit less so on the Democratic side, where the Jimmy Carters and Barack Obamas have been able to build upon their appeals as outsiders. More unusually this time around, it didn’t seem to matter much where the fame came from, thus following the saw of our increasingly media-crazed world that bad publicity is better than none at all.
- Identity politics and appeal to an excluded group. Clinton and Trump—along with Cruz and Sanders—built their campaigns on a base of vocal supporters who felt underrepresented and denied a fair voice in government: liberal older women, men without college degrees or with declining job prospects, evangelicals, and the young. Yes, each of these groups is diverse, but each provided a surge in voters for the primaries as well as enthusiastic volunteers for the campaign trudge. The same might be said eight years ago about President Obama’s appeal to liberals of all colors who felt that his election would help complete a civil rights revolution. This pattern amends the traditional notion that the excluded group to whom one must appeal is the far left or far right of each party, or as Richard Nixon told Bob Dole, “You have to run as far as you can to the right because that’s where 40 percent of the people who decide the nomination are. And to get elected you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle.” With declining party identity, by the time of the general election the majority of the public now identifies with neither party nor that excluded group successful in the primaries. Themselves now largely excluded unless new coalitions can be formed, they will decide the final election by whom they vote against rather than for.
- Wealth. The Clintons are worth at least $50 million and perhaps more than $100 million. While Trump has been accused of exaggerating his net worth, it is plentiful enough. Or, as he told Good Morning America in 2011: “That’s one of the nice things. I mean, part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich. So if I need $600 million, I can put $600 million myself. That’s a huge advantage. I must tell you, that’s a huge advantage over the other candidates.”
- Ivy League credentials. Hillary Clinton has degrees from Wellesley (one of the “little Ivys”) and Yale. Trump got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Cruz was educated at Princeton and Harvard, and Sanders received his degree from the University of Chicago. This trend isn’t new: Obama graduated from Columbia and Harvard, George W. Bush from Yale and Harvard, Bill Clinton from Oxford and Yale, and George H.W. Bush from Yale. All recent Supreme Court justices are Yale or Harvard Law School graduates. Don’t be fooled by stories about the declining power of old boy and old girl networks, or by tales that a strong education advances worldly fame or success, at least at the top of the pyramid, more than where you go to college, graduate school, or law school.
- New York connections. More money and more connections. Trump, a New York real estate magnate, and Clinton, a senator from New York, have been able to build upon their geographical connections to finance and wealth. All Republican presidents from Hoover onward, apart from war hero Eisenhower, have been from the big, moneyed states of California, New York, or Texas. Add Massachusetts to the list, and both parties have usually had a major candidate, if not actual nominee, from one of those four states for the past 80-some years. (Cruz, of course, is from Texas.) Bigger states also add to fame and electoral votes, not just money and connections.
- Presidential campaign experience. Everyone remembers that Clinton ran before, but you might not remember that Trump floated the idea of running in 1988, 2004, and 2012; in 2000, he won two primaries under Ross Perot’s Reform Party banner. Of course, here we have nothing new. Many presidents—including Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and both Bushes—previously ran for president or vice president or knew what to do from participating in their fathers’ efforts.
- A sense of destiny. Both major party candidates feel like they have worked hard and paid their dues, that others are conspiring to deny them something they have earned, and that they personally must acquire power to fight for our rights. Perhaps this is a requirement for anyone running for president.
- Birth year 1946-47. Malcolm Gladwell has commented on the power of small cohorts, ranging from late 19th-century industrial monopolists to leaders of the IT revolution, to dominate many thrusts forward. Consider, then, some birth years: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, 1946; Hillary Clinton, 1947. Maybe this is the JFK factor: the excitement of the Kennedy-Nixon election and the resulting attraction to politics of those in late adolescence in 1960. But whether a random event or not, soon we will likely have 20 to 24 years of the presidency held by people born within either a 2- or 14-month period. Perhaps less repeatable than other attributes noted above. Or is it? Twenty-one senators were born between 1944 and 1950.
Over the past 30 or 35 years, income and government spending per household have both about doubled, but working- and middle-class Americans have seen much less improvement in their earnings, wealth, education, and skills than they did in earlier decades. The international economy and the concentration of power within the top 1 percent are major factors, but it’s hard to believe that we can’t do a lot better with the $60,000 in federal and state spending and tax subsidies we spend annually per household, or the $2 million in health, retirement, education, and other direct supports scheduled for each child born today. My recent study finds that the US budget is moving increasingly away from promoting opportunity for all.
At the same time, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and almost everyone running for office ascribe to the notion of America as a land of opportunity while telling supporters they are being denied the opportunities owed them. But it takes more than rhetoric to climb out of our current political pit.
- First, the few programs that attempt to promote opportunity, such as work incentives and education, are scheduled to take a smaller share of available federal government resources. There is one major exception: large tax subsidies for housing and for employee benefits like retirement accounts continue to expand. However, by largely excluding low- to middle-income households, those programs show how today’s programs largely fail to promote opportunity for all. That is, they are not inclusive opportunity programs. Figure 1 summarizes these results.
- Second, if we wish to promote opportunity for all, we must carefully discern the outcomes pursued and judiciously measure how well programs achieve those outcomes. “Opportunity for all,” if left amorphous, lacks any prescriptive power, leads to claims that anything the government does or stops doing can promote opportunity, and, as long as the intended outcomes are unspecified, prevents assessing program performance. I suggest that opportunity for all is not simply an equity objective: it pursues outcomes centered on growth over time in earnings, employment, human and social capital, and wealth while it emphasizes inclusion, especially of low- and middle-income households. And I suggest that we can and should measure most programs by their performance on that opportunity standard, even if the primary standard by which they are judged—such as retirement, food security, or even defense—seems initially removed from that opportunity focus.
- Third, there’s tremendous budgetary potential for promoting opportunity whether the government increases or decreases relative to the economy. Realizing this potential doesn’t require moving backward on other fronts but shifting tracks, as from north to northeast, to also move forward on the opportunity front. The trick is to channel a larger share of the additional revenues provided by economic growth toward an opportunity agenda. Ten years from now annual federal spending and tax subsidies are scheduled to increase some $2 trillion (or roughly $15,000 per household), but essentially none of that growth goes to opportunity-for-all programs. Children receive almost nothing a decade hence, while interest on the debt rises significantly because we are unwilling to collect enough taxes to pay our bills as we go along.
When you look at these numbers, it seems clear that reorienting budget priorities could help provide opportunity in ways likely to promote equality in earnings and wealth. What is also clear, however, is that small ball is not going to get the job done when so much in the budget is moving in the direction of deform, not reform.
Total Outlays and Tax Expenditures for Major Budget Categories under Current Law
Billions of 2016 dollars
Source: Author’s tabulations of Congressional Budget Office data.
Notes: Public goods include such items as defense, infrastructure, and research and development that benefit the population broadly. Direct supports are programs and transfers that directly benefit households and communities, such as health care and education. Within direct supports, income maintenance programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and SNAP (formerly food stamps) protect a certain level of income and consumption, while opportunity programs aim to increase private earnings, wealth, and human capital over time. Largely inclusive opportunity programs benefit low- and middle-income groups, while noninclusive opportunity programs largely exclude them or provide them with fewer supports than upper-income groups.