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A Different Type of Tax Reform
Two interesting, and important, documents crossed our desk last week. The first was the 2019 edition of the Economic Report of the President. What particularly grabbed our attention was the following statement from Chapter 3:
Fundamentally, when people opt to neither work nor look for work it is an indication that the after-tax income they expect to receive in the workforce is below their "reservation wage"—that is, the minimum value they give to time spent on activities outside the formal labor market.
That does not strike us as a controversial proposition, which makes the second of last week's documents—actually a set of documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—especially interesting.
In that series of documents, HHS's Nina Chien and Suzanne Macartney point out a couple of things that are particularly important when thinking about the effect of tax rates on after-tax income and the incentive to work. The first, which is generally appreciated, is that the tax rates that matter with respect to incentives to work are marginal tax rates—the amount that is ceded to the government on the next $1 of income received. The second, and less often explicitly recognized, is that the amount ceded to the government includes not only payments to the government (in the form of, for example, income taxes) but also losses in benefits received from the government (in the form of, for example, Medicaid or child care assistance payments).
The fact that effective marginal tax rates are all about the sum of explicit tax payments to the government and lost transfer payments from the government applies to us all. But it is especially true for those at the lower end of the income distribution. These are the folks (of working age, anyway) who disproportionately receive means-tested benefit payments. For low-wage workers, or individuals contemplating entering the workforce into low-wage jobs, the reduction of public support payments is by far the most significant factor in effective marginal tax rates and the consequent incentive to work and acquire skills.
The implication of losing benefits for an individual's effective marginal tax rate can be eye-popping. From Chien and Macartney (Brief #2 in the series):
Among households with children just above poverty, the median marginal tax rate is high (51 percent); rates remain high (never dipping below 45 percent) as incomes approach 200 percent of poverty.
Our own work confirms the essence of this message. Consider a representative set of households, with household heads aged 30–39, living in Florida. (Because both state and local taxes and certain transfer programs vary by state, geography matters.) Now think of calculating the wealth for each household—wealth being the sum of their lifetime earnings from working and the value of their assets net of liabilities—and grouping the households into wealth quintiles. (In other words, the first quintile would the 20 percent of households with the lowest wealth, the fifth quintile would be the 20 percent of households with the highest wealth.)
What follows are the median effective marginal tax rates that we calculate from this experiment:
Median Effective Marginal Tax Rate
Consistent with Chien and Macartney, the median effective marginal tax rates for the least wealthy are quite high. Perhaps more troubling, underlying this pattern of effective tax rates is one especially daunting challenge. The source of the relatively high effective rates for low-wealth individuals is the phase-out of transfer payments, some of which are so abrupt that they are referred to as benefits, or fiscal, cliffs. Because these payments differ widely across family structure, income levels within a quintile, and state law, the marginal tax rates faced by individuals in the lower quintiles are very disparate.
The upshot of all of this is that "tax reform" aimed at reducing the disincentives to work at the lower end of the income scale is not straightforward. Without such reform, however, it is difficult to imagine a fully successful approach to (in the words of the Economic Report) "[increasing] the after-tax return to formal work, thereby increasing work incentives for potential entrants into the labor market."
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