Readers of this column know I don’t go in for hyperbole. In fact, I’m often (legitimately) criticized for being the overly measured, on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that economist. And yet, with no compunction, I assert that the aspect of the House Republicans’ tax plan featured in this post engages in some of the most egregious class warfare I’ve ever seen. It’s the type of class warfare that billionaire investor Warren Buffett had in mind when he said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
I’m talking about the House Republicans’ much-touted increase in the child tax credit, the part of their plan that its advocates go on about in their endless protestations that, contrary to the distributional tables that are now coming out, it’s not a giveaway to rich heirs and multinational businesses. It’s a “middle-class miracle!”
Like so much else in this plan, once you dig into the details, you see that their expansion of the credit delivers the goods to those at the top and nothing to those at the low end. As tax analyst Chuck Marr wrote in a recent piece:
The House Republican tax bill increases the maximum child tax credit (CTC) to $1,600, from its current $1,000 per-child level. The proposal, however, excludes millions of children whose parents work in low-wage jobs — even as it expands eligibility for higher-income families. Since low-wage earning parents and their children are the people with the greatest need for the CTC, excluding them from the CTC expansion — especially while extending the CTC for the first time to many families with incomes between $150,000 and $300,000 — represents unsound policy.
What Chuck calls “unsound policy” I call mean-spirited class warfare, and a microcosm of what’s so wrong with this plan. Perhaps the Senate will help fix this part, but the fundamental problem remains. By transferring trillions in forgone revenue to the richest households, the tax plan hurts economically vulnerable families twice. First, by results like the one Chuck notes, and second, by the resulting increase in the deficit, which will soon lead these same conservatives to call for cutting spending programs that help the very folks their tax plan overlooks.
Marr’s analysis compares a single mother of two children who works 50 weeks per year at the minimum wage, earning $14,500. Such families benefit from the CTC, as the credit ignores their first $3,000 of earnings and provides a 15 percent credit on the rest of their income, up to $1,000 per child, meaning they would end up with $1,725. So far, so good.
But even though the Republicans increase the maximum per-child benefit to $1,600, this low-income family would be ineligible for any new benefits beyond what it is currently receiving (see figure). The expansion does, however, confer new benefits on upper-income families who, under current tax law, get no help from the CTC because their incomes are above the current phaseout range ($150,000 for families with two kids). Because the Republican plan lifts that phaseout range to almost $300,000, a couple with two children who make $200,000 and thus do not qualify for today’s CTC get $3,200 under the House plan.
Let me be clear: Raising kids is expensive, and I’ve got no problem with a tax code that helps even upper-income parents meet those expenses. But let’s be equally clear about where the biggest bang for the buck is when it comes to making a long-term difference in the lives of children. Poverty — and raising two kids on a paycheck that’s anywhere near the minimum wage means you’re poor — has been shown to create lasting damage in children’s later life outcomes, including their health, education and earnings. Conversely, pro-work programs like the CTC have been shown to effectively prevent or offset those outcomes.
Somehow, the Republican tax writers and the cheerleaders for this plan — including President Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, who, to her credit, has spoken out about the need for policies to help families raise children — managed to avoid helping those who need it the most, while providing new credits for those with much less need. Moreover, they made this skewed choice in the context of a plan that delivers its biggest bundles of cash to heirs of rich estates and wealthy corporations.
Like I said, maybe Senate lawmakers will fix this, but even if they do, it provides an awfully clear signal as to who these politicians are working for and who they’re ignoring.