Last week, the Census Bureau put out its annual income and poverty figures for 2012. The big news on the poverty front is that the percentage of Americans living in poverty is unchanged at 15 percent, which amounts to 46.5 million Americans. More than one in five kids under the age of 18 are in poverty, and nearly one in four kids under the age of six are impoverished as well. These are numbers we’ve all become accustomed to, but they can still shock the conscience if you make an effort to let them soak in again.
The sheer scale of poverty in the U.S. is so massive that it can seem as if eliminating or dramatically reducing it would be nearly impossible. After all, 46 million people is a lot of people. But in reality, if we stick to the official poverty line, the amount of money standing in the way of poverty eradication is much lower than people realize.
In its annual poverty report, the Census Bureau includes a table that few take note of which actually details by how much families are below the poverty line. A little multiplication and addition later, and the magic number pops out. In 2012, the number was $175.3 billion. That is how many dollars it would take to bring every person in the United States up to the poverty line. In 2012, that number was just 1.08 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is to say the overall size of the economy.
To be sure, you probably don’t want to run a program that hunts out every family below the poverty line and brings them right up to it. Such a program would effectively involve imposing a 100 percent marginal tax rate for all income made below the poverty line. But, things like strategically expanding the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP, and related programs could make enormous strides toward poverty reduction. Implementing a mild basic income and a negative income tax would also help a great deal. The policy solutions for dramatically cutting poverty exist, they are used by countries elsewhere, and they could be used here, if we chose to do so.
It might be helpful to put the $175.3 billion magic number in perspective. In 2012, this number was just one-fourth of the $700 billion the federal government spent on the military. When you start hunting through the submerged spending we do through the tax code, it takes you no time to find enough tax expenditures geared toward the affluent to get to that number as well. The utterly ridiculous tax expenditures directed toward the disproportionately affluent class of people called homeowners—mortgage interest deduction, property tax deduction, exclusion of capital gains on residences—by themselves sum to $115.3 billion in 2012. Throw in the $117.3 billion in tax expenditures used to subsidize employer-based health care (also a disproportionate sop to the rich), and you’ve already eclipsed the magic number.
Eradicating or dramatically cutting poverty is not the deeply complicated intractable problem people make it out to be. The dollars we are talking about are minuscule up against the size of our economy. We have poverty because we choose to have it. We choose to design our distributive institutions in ways that generate poverty when we could design them in ways that don’t. Its continued existence is totally indefensible and our nation’s biggest shame.
By: Matt Bruenig, The American Prospect, September 24, 2013
In a decade of frenzied tax-cutting for the rich, the Republican Party just happened to lower tax rates for the poor, as well. Now several of the party’s most prominent presidential candidates and lawmakers want to correct that oversight and raise taxes on the poor and the working class, while protecting the rich, of course.
These Republican leaders, who think nothing of widening tax loopholes for corporations and multimillion-dollar estates, are offended by the idea that people making less than $40,000 might benefit from the progressive tax code. They are infuriated by the earned income tax credit (the pride of Ronald Reagan), which has become the biggest and most effective antipoverty program by giving working families thousands of dollars a year in tax refunds. They scoff at continuing President Obama’s payroll tax cut, which is tilted toward low- and middle-income workers and expires in December.
Until fairly recently, Republicans, at least, have been fairly consistent in their position that tax cuts should benefit everyone. Though the Bush tax cuts were primarily for the rich, they did lower rates for almost all taxpayers, providing a veneer of egalitarianism. Then the recession pushed down incomes severely, many below the minimum income tax level, and the stimulus act lowered that level further with new tax cuts. The number of families not paying income tax has risen from about 30 percent before the recession to about half, and, suddenly, Republicans have a new tool to stoke class resentment.
Representative Michele Bachmann noted recently that 47 percent of Americans do not pay federal income tax; all of them, she said, should pay something because they benefit from parks, roads and national security. (Interesting that she acknowledged government has a purpose.) Gov. Rick Perry, in the announcement of his candidacy, said he was dismayed at the “injustice” that nearly half of Americans do not pay income tax. Jon Huntsman Jr., up to now the most reasonable in the Republican presidential field, said not enough Americans pay tax.
Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and several senators have made similar arguments, variations of the idea expressed earlier by Senator Dan Coats of Indiana that “everyone needs to have some skin in the game.”
This is factually wrong, economically wrong and morally wrong. First, the facts: a vast majority of Americans have skin in the tax game. Even if they earn too little to qualify for the income tax, they pay payroll taxes (which Republicans want to raise), gasoline excise taxes and state and local taxes. Only 14 percent of households pay neither income nor payroll taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center at the Brookings Institution. The poorest fifth paid an average of 16.3 percent of income in taxes in 2010.
Economically, reducing the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit — which would be required if everyone paid income taxes — makes no sense at a time of high unemployment. The credits, which only go to working people, have always been a strong incentive to work, as even some conservative economists say, and have increased the labor force while reducing the welfare rolls.
The moral argument would have been obvious before this polarized year. Nearly 90 percent of the families that paid no income tax make less than $40,000, most much less. The real problem is that so many Americans are struggling on such a small income, not whether they pay taxes. The two tax credits lifted 7.2 million people out of poverty in 2009, including four million children. At a time when high-income households are paying their lowest share of federal taxes in decades, when corporations frequently avoid paying any tax, it is clear who should bear a larger burden and who should not.
By: Editorial, The New York Times, August 30, 2011