Economy & Business

Taxing Inheritances Won’t Fix Social Security

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) participates in a mock swearing-in in Washington, D.C., January 3, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Senator Chris Van Hollen wants a lower exemption and a 45 percent rate for the estate tax.

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) has a new proposal to hike the estate tax. Specifically, he’d cut the exemption in half (from $11.4 million per individual this year), raise the rate from 40 percent to 45 percent, and shift all the tax’s revenues into Social Security’s notional trust fund.

This would impose economic consequences and punish successful Americans trying to pass down their assets and businesses to their children, yet would get nowhere close to ending Social Security’s massive shortfalls.

In 2017, the Joint Committee of Taxation estimated that the difference between the current and proposed exemption level equaled $83 billion over a ten-year period.

Add the higher rate and all existing estate-tax revenues, and that still doesn’t come close to covering Social Security’s roughly $950 billion budget shortfall over the next ten years. And that’s before Social Security’s trust fund runs dry in 2035. The estate tax simply does not raise a lot of revenue, thanks to its narrow tax base, already high tax rate, and significant economic costs.

In 2018, the tax raised less than 0.7 percent of all federal revenue, according to data from the Office of Management and Budget. The 40 percent rate incentivizes people to close or sell their businesses to avoid paying the tax, rather than maintaining their businesses or family farms for future generations. Sometimes these sales are not even a result of so-called “tax avoidance,” as when family members of the deceased simply cannot afford the estate tax without selling the business.

Increasing that rate to 45 percent and cutting the exemption in half would lead to more broken-up family businesses and inefficient tax avoidance. That would reduce productivity and investment, meaning fewer jobs and lower wages for ordinary American workers.

Raising the estate tax’s exemption also increases the compliance cost of filing the tax for a lot of mourning families. The tax is extremely complex, and before the 2017 tax cuts raised the exemption, Americans spent nearly 2.1 million hours annually trying to comply with the tax, with many of those hours billed at high hourly rates.

Senator Van Hollen’s legislation would return many Americans to a highly complex system that costs the United States over $100 million a year in lost economic activity. Instead of trying to calculate the value of a deceased loved one’s assets, Americans could be working, spending time with their families, or carrying on their loved one’s legacy by operating and growing his or her business.

Besides being unable to cover the costs of Social Security, the plan also radically transforms the nature of the program. Since its inception, Social Security has been funded exclusively from the program’s own payroll taxes, but this proposal would sever that link. Social Security would become just another welfare program.

The proposal also appears to be a Trojan horse for the senator’s true plan: raising payroll taxes on all Americans through his proposed Social Security 2100 Act.

The 2100 Act would raise payroll taxes on all Americans from 12.4 percent to 14.8 percent by 2043. Once fully phased in, the average worker making $50,000 would be paying $7,400 annually in payroll taxes. That’s more than the average household spends on food in an entire year.

The 2100 Act removes any illusion that Social Security reform is about protecting vulnerable beneficiaries, because it would provide the biggest benefit increases to the wealthiest Americans: Annual benefits would increase by $12,333 for millionaires, compared with $333 for workers making $30,000 per year. So while Senator Van Hollen wants to tax the wealthy more via the estate tax, he also wants to give them fatter Social Security checks.

There is a better way to protect Social Security for future generations. We need to focus the program on its original goal of preventing poverty in old age by increasing benefits for lower-income earners and gradually reducing them for middle- and upper-income workers. Other commonsense changes, such as raising and indexing the retirement age and using a more accurate inflation index, would help as well.

With these reforms, instead of rising to 14.8 percent as proposed in the Social Security 2100 Act, payroll taxes could drop to 10.1 percent. That would mean an extra $2,400 in the average American’s pocket and a bigger, stronger economy.

— Rachel Greszler is a research fellow in economics, budget, and entitlements in the Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget, of the Institute for Economic Freedom, at the Heritage Foundation. Travis Nix is a member of Heritage’s Young Leaders Program.

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