Taxing the Poor

by Reihan Salam

At The New Atlantis, James Capretta has identified a crucial flaw in the Baucus bill.

A family with an income at twice the poverty line, or $48,000 in 2016, would get $9,072 in federal assistance for coverage — still a substantial sum. But it’s $7,400 less than the family would get if they earned half as much. The Baucus plan thus imposes an implicit marginal tax rate of about 30 percent ($7,400/$24,000) on wages earned by families in this income range.

And that would come on top of the high implicit taxes already built into current law. Low-wage families with children also get the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC boosts incomes for those with the very lowest wages, but it is also phased-out as incomes rise. Past a certain threshold (about $21,400 in 2016), the EITC is reduced by $0.21 for every additional $1 earned. Throw in the individual income tax rate (15 percent) and payroll taxes (7.65 percent), and the effective, implicit tax rate for workers between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty line would quickly approach 70 percent — not even counting food stamps and housing vouchers.

Greg Mankiw followed up, suggesting that Capretta was underestimating the implicit marginal tax rate.

Indeed, Jim seems to understate matters, as he includes only the employee half of the payroll tax. Including both the employee and employer halves, as economic theory says is appropriate, appears to give a marginal tax rate closer to 80 percent. And, of course, many states impose income and sales taxes as well, and these would further raise the overall marginal tax rate.

If we pursued Mankiw’s proposed stimulus and halved the payroll tax and paid for it with an increase in the gas tax, we’d ease the burden on less affluent workers, who are far less likely to commute by automobile.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.