Tax policy isn’t the loudest or most controversial contrast between the two main candidates for president, but for American workers, it may provide the most consequential outcome of the election.
The tax plans of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton flow from almost, but not entirely, opposing philosophies of what’s ailing the economy and American workers. They overlap in a few small but important ways, most notably their focus on working parents.
And they cater to very different groups of taxpayers and voters, in both political and economic terms.
Clinton’s plan soaks the rich, rewards low-income parents and raises a lot of money to fund new social programs such as universal pre-K education.
Trump’s plan benefits corporations, the rich, upper-middle-class families, the middle class writ large and the poor, in roughly that declining order. It also helps small businesses, though it’s not clear by how much.
The Trump plan blows a hole in the federal budget that only massive budget cuts and/or rapid economic growth could patch. Clinton’s plan, when coupled with her spending ambitions, would leave the budget deficit about where it is today.
Here’s a guide to each candidate’s proposals, including a look at who would win and lose from each plan, what dangers lurk in the candidates’ details — and what a typical American worker might expect if something resembling either plan becomes law.
Hillary Clinton’s tax plan
Winners: Working families, particularly low-income parents with young children. Clinton would double the existing child tax credit for working-class families from a maximum of $1,000 a year to $2,000 a year, per child, for children 4 and under. She would expand the credit to an estimated 14 million more families by changing income thresholds for benefiting from it. She would also create new tax credits for out-of-pocket health-care expenses and for caring for a parent or grandparent. Clinton has suggested she could offer new tax credits to defray child care expenses as part of her plan to limit any family’s spending on child care to no more than 10 percent of its income, but she has not specified how that would work.
Losers: The rich. Clinton proposes three new ways to tax high earners more, including a 4 percent additional tax on the less than 1 percent of individuals who earn $2.5 million or more per year; a new minimum effective tax rate of 30 percent, modeled on the “Buffett rule,” for individuals earning $1 million or more; and a hard limit on the value of deductions (outside of charitable contributions) that high earners can claim on their tax returns.
But that’s not all! Clinton would end a tax benefit known as the carried interest provision, which is commonly used by private equity groups on Wall Street. She would increase taxes on certain capital gains — on assets held for six years or less before being sold — in an effort to push investors to think longer-term in their decision-making.
She would also ramp up the estate tax for heirs of the wealthiest Americans, bumping the rate from a maximum of 40 percent today to as high as 65 percent for individual estates valued at more than $500 million.
This is likely the most explicit and ambitious plan to tax the rich ever laid out by a major-party presidential nominee. The independent Tax Policy Center estimates that 90 percent of Clinton’s tax increases would fall on the top 1 percent of earners and that those earners would see their incomes fall by an average of 7 percent as a result.
What to worry about: Economic growth. The independent Tax Foundation, which tends to project big growth effects from tax cuts, estimates Clinton’s tax hikes would shave a quarter-point off gross domestic product growth every year for the next decade. That’s not a ton, but it’s little help to an economy in which growth has run below historical trends ever since the Great Recession.
Clinton’s team has its own theory of why their plan will boost growth, which leans heavily on the idea that her spending programs would allow parents to work more.
How would a typical American worker fare? In terms of their tax bill, just . . . okay. A median-income household would, on average, get about $110 a year from Clinton’s tax proposals, the Tax Policy Center estimates. (Again: working parents of small kids would do significantly better.)
The bigger upside for middle-class Americans probably lies in the programs Clinton would fund with her tax hikes on the rich, including debt-free college tuition and paid family and medical leave.
Donald Trump’s tax plan
Winners: Taxpayers up and down the income ladder, but especially the ones at the top. Also most businesses.
This is the most Oprah-esque tax proposal since Ronald Reagan in 1980: You get a tax cut! You get a tax cut! You get a tax cut! Trump would collapse the current income tax code from seven rates to three and cut rates on most taxpayers in the process — especially at the top, where the rate would fall from nearly 40 percent to 33 percent. He would also expand the standard deduction, allowing millions more Americans near the bottom end of the income scale not to pay taxes at all, and offer new tax breaks for child and elder care.
Those changes add up to big reductions in tax bills for most Americans, but especially the very highest earners, the top 0.1 percent, who would see their incomes rise by 14 percent, the Tax Policy Center estimates. Added bonus for the very wealthy: Trump would eliminate the estate tax entirely. It currently applies only to large estates.
Businesses would see an even bigger payoff. Trump would slash the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent. That lower rate would also apply to the owners of some businesses organized as “pass-through” entities, which is a structure popular with many small businesses and with Trump’s own companies. Currently, pass-through profits are taxed as individual income for owners. In this structure, the businesses aren’t taxed under the corporate rate; the profits are taxed as individual income for the owners. The Trump campaign has not specified which pass-throughs, exactly, would be eligible for the lower rate under his plan.
Losers: Millions of working families, potentially.
Trump’s plan eliminates taxpayers’ ability to claim deductions for each of their children — and a provision called “head of household” status that lowers tax bills for many single parents. New York University professor and former Obama administration economic adviser Lily Batchelder estimates that those losses would more than outweigh the benefits of Trump’s plan for millions of families and single parents.
Trump’s campaign says that won’t be the case — because Trump would insist Congress ensure that no one pays higher taxes under his plan. That means the congressional bill would need to look different, in an important but as of now undefined way, from the campaign proposal.
What to worry about: Federal debt. Every independent analysis of Trump’s plans estimates it would massively reduce federal government revenue and add trillions of dollars to the debt over the next decade. The Tax Policy Center pegs the hole at $7 trillion. The Tax Foundation says it could be as little as $2.4 trillion, after factoring in what it projects would be accelerated economic growth.
Trump’s campaign says his economic plan, as a whole, will be revenue-neutral, because he will cut spending and further increase growth through energy, regulation and trade policies.
How would a typical American worker fare? Modestly well, if you’re just looking at the tax side. The Tax Policy Center estimates the median household would see its income grow by $1,010 under Trump’s proposals, on average. That’s an income boost of nearly 2 percent, which is better than Clinton’s plan, but still well below the boost Trump would give to the rich.
Trump’s spending proposals could boost some workers, notably his pledge to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure construction. His proposed budget cuts could also hurt typical families: His plan focuses potential cuts on a small area of the federal budget that includes areas such as environmental protection, consumer product safety and education.