Can Foundation Giving Relate Better to Society’s Needs Over Time?

Charitable organizations form a vital part of America’s safety net. Ideally, foundations would be able to make greater payouts in hard economic times when needs are greatest. Unfortunately, the design of today’s excise tax on foundations undermines and in fact discourages such efficiency.

Under current law, private foundations are required to pay an excise tax on their net investment income. The tax rate is 2 percent, but it can be reduced to 1 percent if the foundation satisfies a minimum distribution requirement. The dual-rate structure and distribution requirements obviously introduce complexity. The stated purpose of the tax in legislative history—to finance IRS activities in monitoring the charitable sector—has never been fulfilled.

In the recent recession, the impact of the excise tax was especially pernicious, as it penalized those that maintained their level of grantmaking.

How?  As Martin Sullivan and I first described in 1995, the excise tax penalizes spikes in giving; under the current formula, a temporarily higher payout results in a higher excise tax when payouts fall back to previous levels. A foundation that reduced its grantmaking during the last recession would not be subject to an increased excise tax because the amount the foundation paid out would be measured as a share of current net worth.

One proposal would replace the excise tax with a single-rate tax yielding the same amount of revenue. While a flat-rate tax would remove the disincentive to raise grantmaking in bad times, it still raises taxes for some foundations and not others.

A related law applying to foundations is the required payout rate, now set at 5 percentage points. Many experts have debated how high that rate should be. The current rate is believed to approximate the long-term real rate of return on a foundation’s balanced portfolio of assets. However, if foundations follow a strict rule of paying out the minimum 5 percent every year, they, too, will be operating procyclically, paying out more in good times when stock markets are high and less in bad times.

If we wish foundations to operate more countercyclically—to pay out more when needs are greater—we need to address both the excise tax and the natural tendency, reinforced by a minimum payout requirement, to make grants and payouts as a fixed percentage of each year’s net worth.

Wealth Accumulation by Race Over the Life Cycle

While the income inequality among different racial and ethnic groups is significant, it is nothing compared to wealth inequality. In 2010, whites had six times more average wealth than blacks and Hispanics ($632,000 versus $103,000). The income gap, by comparison, was twofold ($89,000 versus $46,000).

In a recent study, several colleagues and I examine in more depth how these ratios are affected by wealth accumulation over a person’s lifetime. Early in wealth-building years (when adults are in their 30s), white families have 3.5 to 4 times the wealth of families of color. As adults age these initial racial differences grow both absolutely and relatively. Whites in the cohort we examined started with about three and a half times more wealth than blacks in their 30s but had seven times more wealth in their 60s. Compared with Hispanics, whites had four times more wealth in their 30s but nearly five times more wealth three decades later.

Or consider how ratios would vary if each family saved the same share of its income and earned the same rate of return on those savings. Ignoring inheritances, the wealth gap should resemble the income gap, not be three times as large.

While the Great Recession didn’t cause the wealth disparities between whites and minorities, it did exacerbate them. The 2007–09 economic slowdown brought about sharp declines in the wealth of white, black, and Hispanic families alike, but Hispanics experienced the largest decline. Lower net equity in homes accounts for much of Hispanics’ wealth loss, while retirement accounts are where blacks were hit hardest.

Something is definitely going on. Whatever other conclusions one may draw, I think our tax and social policies are doing a pretty poor job of helping individuals attain the types of protections that private wealth-holding offers. In fact, wealth disparities among races have expanded over the past 27 years, which should have liberals and conservatives alike questioning the unintended consequences of their policy victories, or at least their policy focus, over that period.

For more analysis of the wealth gap between whites and minorities, read the brief Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation or watch The Racial Wealth Gap in America. This work has been cited in the New York Times.

Should Social Security Taxes Affect All Wages? A Modest Rise Is Fine, but It’s Not a Panacea

Arithmetic tells us we must either decrease the growth of Social Security spending or increase taxes as a share of gross domestic product.

But we should do it with an eye on fairness, growth and efficiency. We’re all in this together, so higher-income families must give up something to deal both with Social Security shortfalls and those in the budget more generally. A modest increase in the wage base for Social Security has some justification since that base has eroded in recent years. But if extended too far, it exacerbates the squeeze on other government programs. How? On the tax side, it tends to preempt other tax increases for non-Social Security purposes. On the benefit side, it attempts to maintain a growth rate of Social Security and other elderly programs that absorb more than all of the scheduled growth in government spending for decades to come, thus continuing a downward spiral in the share of the overall budget devoted to children, education and investment more generally.

Under current Social Security formulas, ending the cap on income would mean that some fairly wealthy individuals would get benefits in excess of $1 million. Though no one thinks that that makes sense as a benefit schedule, capping benefits goes against the Social Security tradition of being paid back for additional contributions. On the technical front, an unlimited Social Security tax would also encourage individuals to reclassify labor income as capital income not subject to Social Security tax. This would be a special problem for the self-employed and owners of partnerships, since Social Security now taxes both their capital and labor income as labor income.

Finally, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Actuary found that even with a cap on benefits, the wage base expansion would still leave the program running future deficits. We shouldn’t pretend that it does otherwise.

This column was reposted from New York Time’s Room for Debate.

Any Way You Look at It, Young Americans Have Less Wealth than Their Parents

My colleagues and I recently published research showing that younger age groups are falling behind their parents in wealth accumulation and explaining the story behind our numbers. Some have raised questions about how we use our data, and I want to take some time to further explain our research.

Our study shows that the average wealth, or net worth, of these younger age groups has fallen fairly dramatically relative to older age groups. In response, some have said that median wealth is more important than average wealth. In fact, both are important. Average wealth tells us how a group is prospering as a whole relative to other groups; median wealth tells us how some “typical” person might be doing. One complication with focusing on median wealth is that it doesn’t show where all the remaining wealth goes. In a similar vein, if you were studying small business ownership by age or race, the median value might be zero for all groups. The average values would be greater than zero and thus would allow comparisons by groups.

Consider the median household age 56–64 in 2010. True, it is only slightly richer than the median household of a similar age in 1983 ($179,400 versus $143,150). Still, the median household age 29–37 in 1983 had $46,234 in wealth, but the median household in that age group in 2010 had only $15,900, less than half compared to their parents.

Median and average net worth by age is reported here. Come to your own conclusion.

Another footnote: Our study did not look at the decline in defined benefit wealth. However, the availability of such wealth has declined more for younger than older groups. Moreover, the valuation of defined benefits and annuities goes up for those who have them when interest rates go down. Older individuals with more defined benefit wealth technically saw the value of wealth go up after the Great Recession.

You can slice and dice these data in many ways, but the empirical data speak for themselves: younger age groups have fallen behind in relative terms. All sorts of factors are involved: the Great Recession and its impact on housing, student debt, wages, and so forth. Each is worthy of our attention.

Extending the Charitable Deduction Deadline to Tax Day

Extending the charitable deduction deadline is a move with precedent: the government has used it to encourage giving following a natural disaster. President Barak Obama signed a provision allowing charitable donations toward the Haiti earthquake made from January 11 to March 1, 2010, to be deducted on 2009 tax returns. President George W. Bush signed a similar law allowing donations for tsunami relief made through January 31, 2005, to be deducted in 2004.

These provisions aim to increase giving at a time when need is critical. In reality, such temporary laws have limited effect because many do not know about these one-off incentives.

Consider instead the marketing possibilities of more permanent incentives to allow charitable deductions made by April 15, aka tax day, to be applied to the previous year’s tax returns.

By making what has frequently been a temporary measure into a permanent law, you eliminate the problem of trying to publicize brief windows of opportunity. Instead, people would come to expect that at filing time they would consider how much they would save by giving to charity.

Evidence suggests that, as in other facets of life, people are prone to making their decisions concerning giving at the last minute. The Online Giving Study finds that 22 percent of online donations are made on the last two days of the December, the last possible moment to claim a tax deduction for that year. Presumably this effect could be magnified if taxpayers were able to add to their charitable giving up until the last two days before they filed their tax returns.

Think of what such tax software companies as TurboTax or H&R Block could do by showing taxpayers directly how donating an extra $100 or $1,000 to any charity would lower their taxable income. The companies could even process the donation immediately through a credit card. If such a measure were enacted, I predict some foundations and charitable-sector collaborative organizations would immediately engage software tax preparation companies, other tax preparers, banks, and online giving organizations to figure out the best way to market this opportunity to the public.

This incentive would be by far among the most effective that Congress has ever provided in almost any arena, including existing charitable incentives. Why? Essentially, the revenue loss to the government is only 30 cents or so (the tax saving) for every additional dollar of charity generated. If people don’t give more, there are no losses, outside some slight timing differences. This is triple or more the estimated effectiveness of charitable giving incentives overall.

Marketing experts immediately grasp windows of opportunity. Back-to-school sales take place in September when families are thinking about school, grocery store advertisements near the weekend when more people do their shopping, Caribbean cruises in the winter when people are cold. The very best time to advertise charitable tax saving is when people file their tax returns.

This change would also add an element of certainty. Not knowing their income and tax rates for the existing year until it is over, people can only guess at the tax effect of any contribution they make to charity. When filing taxes, they can calculate exactly how much tax an additional donation would save.

A permanent law would also encourage all areas of giving instead of only the specific causes picked by Congress. Such targeted opportunities don’t necessarily increase people’s total donations: people are more likely to switch which charity they give to, not give more overall, when Congress highlights a particular charity.

In exploring this option for a number of years, I can find only one significant concern: the increased complication that is always induced by offering people choices (the actual tax-saving calculation, as noted, is actually simpler for many). Would people, for instance, mistakenly report their contributions twice, once for the past year and once for the current year? Would charities have trouble handling an extra checkbox in which taxpayers indicate in what year the contribution was intended?

If one is really interested in making the incentive better, this complication obstacle is easy to overcome. There are options here.

One would be to improve information reporting to IRS on charitable gifts. Only gifts for which charities give formal statements to individuals and the IRS itself could be made eligible. Noncash gifts might be limited in this case to those for which a formal valuation is provided to the taxpayers or, at least initially, excluded altogether. The information reports might only apply to those contributions over $250 for which charities are already required to provide statements to individuals. If charities don’t want to participate, they don’t have to.

Another, lesser bargain would be to experiment first only with online contributions for which software companies could send a report to the individual, charity, and IRS alike (this could include online checks for those banks and other institutions, not just credit card companies, who would be willing to participate). Other compromises along these lines are possible, and some of them on net are likely to improve compliance because of the integrated information system—a win-win strategy.

In separate testimony, I have offered a number of ways that this type of proposal could be incorporated into broader tax and budget reform so charitable giving is increased without any loss in revenues to the government.

With the United States still locked in a recession and the government cutting back its own efforts, what better time is there to encourage greater charitable giving?

Violence in America: The Wider Conversation

In the aftermath of Newtown and, by one estimate, 25 mass shootings since 2006, the country is engaged in an intense fight over assault-like weapons and the right of Americans to carry them. While I consider it downright stupid and outright dangerous to allow people to buy, sell, and carry around the equivalent of small machine guns—imagine how safe you would feel if all your loony neighbors touted one around—I wish we were engaged in a much wider and thoughtful discussion over violence in America and how to reduce it.

By almost all measures, not just mass shootings, our murder rate is among the highest for so-called developed nations. We also put a lot of people in jail; regardless of how much or how little prison deters repeat offenders, that’s not the mark of a peaceful society. My fear in the current debate is that our focus has become so narrow that even the best congressional bill will only modestly reduce the violence around us.

Thoughtful discussions can occur. At a recent Urban Institute conference, DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier enraptured the audience with her command over homicide and other crime statistics, her understanding of what community qualities lower crime, and her constant effort to prevent, not simply solve, crime by engaging police on the ground, social welfare agencies, and others in preemptive efforts.

When we have these types of discussions, it becomes clear that there is no one solution to violence because there’s no one simple cause. Smart police work, early intervention in violent households, neighborhood integration, family counseling, safer gun triggers, mental health efforts, reduced availability of weapons, social norms and pressures, and granting mass murderers less of the media attention they seek all play an important role. Reducing violence requires movement on all fronts, so that vicious cycles become replaced by virtuous cycles, where one positive step multiplies upward the gains from other positive steps.

But, once again, we’ve managed to turn an opportunity to confront broad issues of how to build a better—in this case, safer—society into a narrow political battle where victory will be defined mainly by whether the National Rifle Association gets its way. Advancing societies like ours should aspire higher.

Video on the Ways and Means Committee’s Hearing on Tax Reform and Charities

See a 2-part video of testimony and discussions before the Ways and Means Committee on “Tax Reform and Charities.” To get a sense of Ways and Means members’ views on the related policy issues, the first panel, with the following presentations, in order: myself; Kevin Murphy, Chair, Board of Directors of the Council on Foundations; David Wills, President of the National Christian Foundation; Brian Gallagher, President & CEO of United Way Worldwide; Roger Colinvaux, Professor of Catholic University DC Law School and adviser for the Tax Policy and Charities project at the Urban Institute; Eugene Tempel, Dean of the Indiana University School of Philanthropy; Jan Masaoka, CEO of California Association of Nonprofits. Copies of all testimonies can be found online.

See also our Tax Policy and Charities website for many related studies and data.

The first video begins after about 33 minutes of set up and administrative matters:

PART ONE                                    PART TWO

In addition, the Urban Institute will be hosting a conference on “The Charitable Deduction: A View from the Other Side of the Cliff” on Thursday, February 28, 2013. Registration is now open.

How Tax and Transfer Policies Affect Work Incentives

When the design of safety net programs is considered alongside that of our tax code, it is easy to see that our tax and transfer systems need to focus less on increasing consumption and more on promoting opportunity, work, saving, and education.

The government doesn’t affect work incentives just through direct taxes. Implicit taxes—that is, penalties for earning additional income—are everywhere, whether in TANF or SNAP, Medicaid or the new health exchange subsidy, PEP or Pease (reductions in tax allowances for personal exemptions and itemized deductions), Pell grants or student loans, child tax credits or earned income tax credits, unemployment compensation or workers compensation, or dozens of other programs. These implicit taxes combine with explicit taxes to create inefficient and often inequitable, certainly strange and anomalous, incentives for many households.

At some income levels, families face prohibitively high penalties for moving off assistance. Accepting a higher paying job could mean a steep cut in child care assistance for a single worker with children, for instance. For some, the rapid phaseout of benefits can offset or even more than offset additional take-home pay. Asset tests in means-tested programs create similar barriers to saving.

Not getting married is one way that people avoid some of these penalties or taxes and is the major tax shelter for low- and moderate-income households with children. Our tax and welfare system thus favors those who consider marriage an option—to be avoided when there are penalties and engaged when there are bonuses. The losers tend to be those who consider marriage a social or religious necessity.

The high rates and marriage penalties arising in these systems occur partly because of the piecemeal fashion in which they are considered. Efforts to design benefit packages more comprehensively could greatly improve both the incentives families face and the quality and choice of benefits they receive.

For more details, see my congressional testimony for today’s hearing on “Unintended Consequences: Is Government Effectively Addressing the Unemployment Crisis?” before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.