Growing participation in tax shelters cost the federal treasury as much as $24 billion last year, according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, a group founded by Ralph Nader.
The revenue loss from shelters is almost equal to the amount the government spends on food stamps, aid to families with dependent children and guaranteed student loans, and adds $300 to the average tax bill, the study said.
"The scandal is that the vast majority silently and unwittingly foot the bill for this welfare program for the rich," said the report, entitled Running for Shelter.
According to Treasury Department figures, 60 percent of partnership losses -- a widely used type of shelter -- accrued to taxpayers with gross incomes of more than $250,000 in 1983, and 82 percent of all partnership losses went to those with gross incomes of more than $100,000.
"At the heart of this crisis is a crisis of compliance," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Taxpayers believe, all too correctly, that the tax system is unfair, that many wealthy citizens can legally avoid taxes with their own special tax havens called tax shelters. Far too often, this perception leads to tax cheating and to a deep suspicion of government as a whole -- its programs and the politicians who run it."
"Tax shelters" is a catch-all term for a variety of devices used to minimize taxes, including legal deductions and credits such as accelerated depreciation and the investment tax credit.
Some tax shelters tend to produce deductions larger than the original investment, but the study's author, Richard Meyer, admitted that one person's shelter is another's social policy. Many farmland tax breaks, for example, were enacted to help full-time farmers. Now they have "bid up the price of farm land, stimulated overproduction, exploited marginal land and accelerated the decline of small, independent farms," the study said.
Other principal areas of legal shelter activity include real estate, which the study called "the most popular shelter in America today," and oil drilling. Together, those two acccount for 84 percent of all shelter offerings, the report said. In addition, the report said the use of illegal shelters costs the Treasury $3.6 billion a year.
The most-used method in which investors in these industries shelter their income is through so-called limited partnerships. The Treasury Department estimated in its tax-simplification proposal that the number of taxpayers claiming partnership losses increased fivefold between 1963 and 1982, to 2.1 million, while the total number of tax returns filed rose only 50 percent. By 1981, partnerships as a whole were reporting more in losses than in profits.
The Internal Revenue Service has cracked down on the use of shelters in recent years, and last year's Deficit Reduction Act curtailed the ways in which limited partnerships can allocate losses among partners. But the IRS itself admits that shelter use still is growing.
To control the proliferation of shelters, Claybrook and Meyer advocated drastic tax simplification of the kind proposed by the Treasury Department last November or by Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
"History shows these tax shelters are not good tools of public policy and should probably be scrapped," Meyer said. The government should openly subsidize activities it wishes to encourage rather than providing incentives through the "back door," he said, adding that he favors preserving such popular tax deductions as those for home mortgage interest and Individual Retirement Accounts, however.
Neither the Treasury nor the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation calculate total revenue-loss figures for tax shelters. Meyer arrived at the $24 billion figure by extrapolating from all partnership losses for 1982.
If all those shelters were abolished, however, it's improbable that the government could collect the full $24 billion in taxes, according to a congressional tax analyst. More likely, some taxpayers would find other ways to cut their tax bills, the analyst said.