The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I don’t feel like this is for us’: In land of large families, deep uncertainty over impact of tax overhaul

Becca Riding helps her daughters Maggie, 3, left, and Lucy, 5, read a story at their home in American Fork, Utah. (Isaac Hale/For The Washington Post)

This is how Becca Riding, mother of five, thinks about the tax changes speeding through Congress: Will she and her husband still be able to pay swim team fees for Emily, 13, and Caleb, 11? Will Ainsley, 9, be able to go back to the week-long science summer camp she loved? Can their family still go camping once a year in a national park? And will it remain as affordable to give 10 percent of their income to the Mormon Church, as their faith prescribes?

Middle-class families like the Ridings have been at the center of the Republican message about why the party needs to pass a massive overhaul of the nation’s tax code. The Senate’s top tax writer, Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch (R), pledged that the legislation would bring relief to “hard-working American families and small businesses in Utah and around the country.” President Trump surrounded himself with families at the White House as he urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

But days before Congress plans to pass the biggest tax overhaul in three decades, the Ridings and other middle-class families are still seeking basic answers about the plan and how it will affect not just their pocketbooks but their everyday lives.

House and Senate negotiators agreed to final legislation Friday, with changes made to a range of provisions affecting families, and final passage is expected by Wednesday. It will have been less than two months since the first legislation was introduced, offering little time for families to process the complex revisions.

“All I’ve been hearing is how this will be great for families,” Riding said. “But what I’m seeing is this will be great for others.”

She added: “I don’t feel like this is for us.”

It is hard to tell. That is because the tax plan is largely an exercise in giving with one hand and taking with the other. There are lower tax rates, but less-known is that the plan also ends the $4,050 personal exemption, which, in a household of seven, would reduce a family’s taxable income by more than $28,000 right from the start. There’s a more generous $2,000 child tax credit, but it, along with all the other individual tax cuts, is only temporary, expiring in eight years. And the benefit of swapping child tax credits for exemptions fades with the number of children, because of the complex math underpinning the plan.

For the Ridings and other families, there are other hard questions. The tax bill sustains a deduction for charitable giving, but it would also change the tax code in other ways that are expected to reduce charitable giving. The plan partially preserves a deduction for state and local taxes but affects the Utah tax code in a way that could significantly increase a resident’s overall taxes.

Corporations, by contrast, are spared this uneven treatment in the plan. They get a permanent, roughly $1 trillion tax cut.

“They could be creating new winners and losers,” said Nathan Seegert, a finance professor at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. “I think they need to pay close attention to what this means for families.”

Any potential effect is amplified in a state like Utah, which has the highest average family size in the nation. Riding is reminded of this every time she sees a family of seven or eight children packed into the same kind of minivan she drives. She recalls how, when the family lived in North Carolina, she would go shopping at Costco with just four of her children and women would approach her to say, “Bless your heart.” She doesn’t hear that in Utah.

Becca Riding, 38, and her husband, Dave Riding, 40, both Mormons, tithe 10 percent of their income each year to the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, just like many of the Mormons who make up a majority of Utah’s population. This strong tithing tradition helps explain why Utah has one of the highest rates of charitable giving in the nation. It is also part of the reason that Utah can look like a coastal blue state at tax time, as residents give so much to the church that they use the charitable deduction more often than people in other states.

The Republican tax plan is projected to dramatically cut the number of people who make charitable contributions, because of a decision to increase a standard tax break that can limit the need for deductions. Donations to charities, including churches, could drop by about $13 billion, or 4.5 percent next year, according to the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Becca Riding said no change to tax law would prevent the family from giving to the church.

“We’re glad to do it,” she said. “But why do they need to make it harder for us?”

Riding describes herself as moderate, maybe even left-leaning, in a state so conservative that she calls it “ruby red.” Dave is conservative. But like many in this state, they do not fall neatly into political categorization. Trump won Utah but did not command a majority of the vote.

Watching the tax push on Capitol Hill from 2,000 miles away — and trying to figure out what it means for them — has been dizzying for Becca and Dave.

Dave earns about $100,000 a year as a software developer. Becca works one day a week at her mother’s small business. They consider themselves fortunate, but providing for five children is not easy. They have played around with different online calculators to estimate what would happen to their taxes next year — whether, in their minds, they could still go on a family camping trip. Last summer, it was to Zion National Park in their home state. Next summer, they want to visit Redwood in California. The calculators’ answers ranged from a few hundred dollars more in their pockets to $1,600 more in taxes.

Independent analysts say most families should get a tax cut — at least until the individual tax cuts expire — but it is hard for any given family to know with certainty.

“We just don’t want to have less money than we had before,” Becca Riding said. “So when they say it’s for the middle class, I want to see proof of it.”

“It doesn’t feel like it’s for the middle class,” Dave said. “It’s like a sidecar to the whole thing, this corporate tax cut.”

“Yes,” Becca said. “It doesn’t feel genuine to me.”

“It seems like it might be a little worse for us,” Dave said.

The Ridings face even more uncertainty because Utah’s state income tax could balloon under the federal tax overhaul. Utah is one of a handful of states that calculate state income taxes using federal taxable income, which would rise sharply for families because of the loss of personal exemptions, even with a much bigger standard deduction, before being reduced by child tax credits. A report by Utah’s Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst estimated that state income taxes could rise by $215 million next year if the federal tax bill passes. State lawmakers would need to make tough decisions, and quickly, about how to realign the state tax code, said Richard Auxier, a research associate at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington. “I don’t think many states have prepared for this at all.”

One recent morning, as lawmakers in Washington hashed out last-minute tax details, Becca stood in her kitchen and hustled to get her five children ready for school. Emily had just run out the door. Caleb stopped playing the piano and hunted for his gloves. Ainsley slipped on her jacket. Lucy, 5, read a picture book as her mother fixed her hair. The youngest, Maggie, 3, was busy building a fort out of couch cushions. In a moment of quiet, Dave sat at the kitchen table littered with empty cereal bowls and read aloud from the Book of Mormon.

“Shoes! Teeth!” Becca called out to her children.

After scraping ice from her minivan’s windshield and dropping the children off at school, Becca sat at the kitchen table with her husband. They do not mind paying taxes. They view it as a worthy obligation, in some ways like tithing to the church.

Dave said that maybe the corporate tax cuts would trickle down to his family as higher wages or new opportunities.

But Becca was doubtful. She wondered why tax cuts for families have an expiration date while the tax cuts for corporations do not expire. And she struggled to accept the projected $1.5 trillion cost of the tax plan while her household must stay on budget.

This tax plan is not helping to pay for education or repaving the roads, she said. Those are things for which she would pay more in taxes. For her, the tax overhaul does not feel as though it was intended to help families.

“If they want to help middle-class families,” she said finally, “why don’t they ask us what’s helpful?”