Better target senior tax breaks

Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and many other states.

Also see Iowa Fiscal Partnership news release

A new paper about state tax breaks for seniors shows one reason pre-2020 chatter about new tax breaks in Iowa is a bad idea.

Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes in her report Wednesday that special income-tax breaks for seniors cost states 7 percent on average in 2013, a figure that will rise with growth in the population over 65.

As McNichol notes, “The senior tax breaks are poorly targeted because of their design: most states provide them regardless of the recipient’s income or savings.”

Put another way: Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and — as McNichol notes — in many other states as well.

It is a point Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner have made in Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) analysis over the years about Iowa’s special breaks for pension income, and as legislators phased out what had already been a limited tax on Social Security income.

Already, Iowa has freshly passed, costly and inequitable tax cuts scheduled to be phased in over the next few years, yet state legislators just last week were talking about bigger cuts in 2020. Given attempts to expand senior breaks in 2018, but not adopted in the final package, there is a danger that new income-tax cuts in 2020 could include the new senior breaks.

Among changes considered in 2018 was an expansion of Iowa’s already generous pension exclusion from $6,000 (single) and $12,000 (couple) to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively.

McNichol’s paper notes Iowa is one of 28 states that already completely exempts Social Security income from tax, and one of 26 that exempts at least some pension income.

Iowa, in short, is already quite generous to retirees. Also as McNichol notes, for some this might make sense — seniors at low incomes. But not all.

“A large share of these costly breaks go to higher-income seniors who need them the least. States should reduce this expense by better targeting relief to seniors with low incomes,” she wrote.

Bruner and Fisher noted this problem in their IFP paper last year:

Iowa has adopted a number of special provisions benefiting seniors. While the elderly and disabled property tax credit is available only for those with low income, the other tax preferences are not based on ability to pay:

•   All Social Security benefits are exempt from tax.

•   The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.

•   Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.

•   While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis of tax policy and tax proposals is always grounded in fundamental principles of taxation, among them fairness: Similarly situated taxpayers should be treated similarly in tax policy.

What matters more to measure a taxpayer’s ability to pay is the amount of income, rather than its source. To tax income from wages at a higher rate than retirement income violates that principle.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Dumbing down definition of poverty

The CBPP report illustrates that the Trump plan would magically declare that some people below the current poverty line are no longer poor.

If you wanted to reduce the number of people defined as being in poverty, without reducing poverty itself, what might you do? You could always mess with the numbers.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a solid report out today showing how a Trump administration proposal would do just that. Authors Arloc Sherman and Paul van de Water examine the administration’s proposed alternative to the way cost-of-living adjustments are made to the official poverty guidelines.

The first problem, of course, is that the official poverty guidelines have almost nothing to do with the cost of living. They are an outdated formula — they are a half-century old while, not surprisingly, families’ spending needs have changed. We have shown this regularly at the Iowa Policy Project with our Cost of Living in Iowa research.

Here is what our report, by Peter Fisher and Natalie Veldhouse, noted last year:

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. However, the federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago. The calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food. Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today…. Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 above shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines. In fact, family supporting income even with public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 1.1 to 3.0 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs. Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two-parent family with one worker.

Because the guidelines do matter in the computation of eligibility for work-support programs, it is essential that they are not eroded further to disadvantage low-income families. As the CBPP authors note, not only is the poverty line itself too low to reflect basic needs, but the annual cost-of-living adjustment, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), also is flawed:

Prices have been rising faster than the CPI-U does for the broad categories of goods and services that dominate poorer households’ spending. The poorest fifth of households devote twice as large a share of spending to rent as the typical household, for example, and the cost of rent rose 31 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 17 percent for the overall CPI-U. In addition, recent studies find that low-income households may face more rapidly rising prices than high-income households even for the same types of goods, possibly because low-income households have fewer choices about where and how to shop.

The Trump plan would make that worse, substituting another cost-adjustment measure that slows the pace of upward adjustments in the poverty guidelines. The plan would magically declare that some people below the current poverty line are no longer poor.

Messing with the numbers is never an answer to identifying the challenges one might address with better public policy. Seriously analyzing the relevant ones is essential.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Mother’s Day topic: Fostering opportunity

Enjoy brunch on Mother’s Day, but have a good discussion at the table. There are ideas on the table in Washington about what is needed to help all mothers care for their families.

Mother’s Day is always a good time to focus on public policies that can make mothers’ important jobs easier.

Too often, policy makers look the other way as wages and work supports erode. Costs rise, debt mounts, children grow, and bills pile up. The challenges become daunting.

One proposal on the table would give mothers in low- and moderate-income families a break. The Working Families Tax Relief Act would help 23 million mothers across the country — and 211,000 in Iowa, 158,000 of them working — to look forward.

The proposal would strengthen both the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) — again, a benefit to millions nationally, kids in low- and middle-income families, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). These benefits would be shared broadly across racial groups.

In Iowa alone, the plan would benefit 472,000 Iowa children, according to CBPP.

The proposal strikes a stark contrast to the 2017 tax law that targeted benefits heavily toward wealthy households and corporations — not working families. The principal so-called “middle class” tax cut in that bill was a very meager increase in the CTC, from $1 to $75, to 87,000 children in low-income working families in Iowa.

As CBPP’s Chuck Marr notes in this blog post, a single mother of two who makes $20,000 as a home health aide, for example, would see a boost in her CTC by $2,210 and her EITC by about $1,460 — a total gain of about $3,670.

Working parents at lower levels of income need to be able to afford basic necessities, home and car repairs or other costs of transportation and education or training to get better jobs. The EITC and CTC are critical supports that make work pay for families in low-income situations.

Mother’s Day is a good time to honor those values that we all share. So, go to brunch if you want, but don’t avoid this discussion at the table.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Perspective for the common good on Tax Day

On Tax Day — and every day — we must ask whether rampant tax breaks, subsidies and tax cuts are wise choices with public dollars from taxpayers.

It is so tempting, as we are seeing on social media over the last several days, to talk about filing your taxes and the fact that you (1) paid more or (2) paid less.

Is that really what matters? Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture — the common good. There are three main points to remember:

1) First, what are taxes for? Schools. Roads. National defense. Health care. Fairness and protection in the workplace. Clean air. Clean water. Recreational opportunities. Libraries. There are more examples you may put out front.

But in any case, none of those services funded now by taxpayers will be provided without taxes. They will not be provided by the private sector, at least on any scale that provides access to all Americans.

Go ahead. Chart a road to opportunity for all that does not include taxes. You cannot do it. It is integral to the mission, which is why tax reform is an essential stop we identify on our Roadmap for Opportunity. Unfortunately, Iowans have not received tax reform, but a doubling down on bad tax policy trends of the last 20 or 30 years.

2) Our Iowa tax code is inequitable. The rich pay less as a share of their income than people who live paycheck to paycheck.

It was already a long-term trend in Iowa (and in many states) and it was worsened by the 2018 tax overhaul. Our state and local tax system is upside down.

3) Cleaning up and restoring balance to our tax code would better assure public money is going to public purposes, rather than subsidizing tax breaks and loopholes for those most politically well-connected.

As we have shown:
•     Tax credits for business already cost more than $300 million a year.
•     Tax loopholes for multistate and multinational corporations already cost between $60 million and $100 million.

On Tax Day — and every day — we must ask whether those choices are the best use of public money, when we know education, public safety and environmental quality are being compromised by short-sighted budget decisions in Des Moines.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

No ‘I’ in sports bets

But is prohibiting bets on individuals enough to assure integrity in college games?

An admitted political compromise would legalize sports betting in Iowa while keeping bets on Iowa student athletes illegal — but only on their individual performance.[1]

Promoters of the plan are betting that this small nod to sports integrity might gain a few votes. However, the compromise in the Legislature shines a light on the integrity issue and to larger weaknesses, which are many.

If legal sports betting were not a threat to sports integrity, no such compromise to the betting bill, HF748, would be needed. The compromise concedes a threat remains to competition outside Iowa that gamblers might influence. Plus, legislative deals made now could be quickly reversed next year once that new betting door is open. I mean, what are the odds?

These are among many points — including fiscal and economic issues — being missed in the rushed drive in 2019 to expand gambling in Iowa with legalized sports betting.

Governing Magazine looked at the revenue states might expect. The magazine cited a Moody’s Investors Service report that noted “sports betting in Nevada accounted for just 2 percent of statewide gambling revenue.”[2] In the first six months of legalized sports betting in New Jersey a mere $3 million in tax revenue was raised from in-casino betting, in a state much larger than Iowa and with a higher tax rate on betting (8.5 percent).[3]

This is not economic development. Sports betting in Iowa is for Iowa residents only; we would not attract any out-of-state spending. And much of the money wagered on sports would come from spending on other forms of entertainment at local businesses, where more of the profits stay in the state.

Casinos want sports betting to entice new customers, who might become regulars at the slot machines and gaming tables.

So for a meager increase in revenue, the state would open up greater opportunities to contaminate sports integrity and create new problems of gambling addiction, along with the attendant family problems and breakups, embezzlement, and job loss.

Already, most families have no savings, or very little. Around half of U.S. families have no or negative net wealth.[4] More than 60 percent don’t have even $1,000 put aside for emergencies let alone for retirement.[5] Having more gambling opportunities keeps people from getting ahead.

Many of these problems are only a matter of time. Any bets on how soon we will see them?

2010-PFw5464Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

 

[1] The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, March 19, 2019, “Compromise advances sports betting bill in Iowa House,” https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/compromise-advances-sports-betting-bill-in-iowa-house-limits-in-play-prop-wagers-on-iowa-collegiate-sports-20190319, and March 22, 2019, “Betting on college pivotal to gambling debate,” https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/business/iowa-sports-betting-college-sports-20190322.

[2] Liz Farmer. How the Sports Betting Ruling Will Impact State Budgets The Supreme Court outlawed a federal ban on sports betting on Monday, and some states are poised to capitalize. Governing May 14, 2018. https://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-how-legalizing-sports-betting-will-impact-state-budgets.html

[3] The Tax Policy Center, “TPC’s Sports Gambling Tip Sheet.”  https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxvox/tpcs-sports-gambling-tip-sheet.

[4] The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, Vol. 1, May 2016, Issue 2, Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data, Pg. 554. http://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/SaezZucman2016QJE.pdf.

[5] Bankrate’s Financial Security Index, 2018, https://www.bankrate.com/banking/savings/financial-security-0118/.

Iowa women: Still working for less

Wage trends for all workers mask important demographic differences, as we show in our Wage section of the State of Working Iowa website. New data since that update show a gap remains between wages for men and women. Over almost four decades that gap has narrowed — partly due to lower wages for men — but in 2018 it widened, from 15 cents to 21 cents on the dollar.

For men, real wages began falling for low-wage men in the mid-1970s, and this spread across all but the highest percentiles through 1979-1989 and through the first half of the 1990s (1989-1995).

Some relief in the late 1990s is short-lived: Wage growth grinds to a halt in 2000–2007 and then retreats — for all but highest earners — from 2007–2018. Iowa women workers, by contrast, do relatively well: All but the lowest wage decile see impressive wage gains across the full 1979-2016 era. Low-wage women lost a lot of ground in the 1980s, but did better than their male peers during the 1990s boom.

The gender wage gap has narrowed substantially, but there also is a ways to go toward equal pay: In 1979, women made 62 cents for every dollar earned by men; today they earn 79 cents. The long-term narrowing of that gap reflects, in about equal measure, the gains made by women over that era, and the losses suffered by men.

By Colin Gordon, Senior Research Consultant for the Iowa Policy Project, and lead author of IPP’s State of Working Iowa series.

New obstacles for Iowa families

Millions for work support oversight that would likely result in no savings

Senate File 334 could take food off the table and restrict health care access for some Iowans, while taking money away from much needed programs. The bill would spend $25 million per year after an initial $16 million in FY2020 to hire more than 520 state employees to verify eligibility for Iowans on work support programs such as Medicaid and SNAP (food assistance).[1] This legislation is brought to you by a Koch-funded lobbying group out of Florida.

Iowa’s Legislative Service Agency analysis indicates that the bill’s proposed “quarterly reviews have the potential to reduce public assistance enrollment, but no significant savings are expected because many items that would be reviewed quarterly are currently checked on a frequent basis.”[2]

SNAP helped more than 330,000 Iowans in January of 2019.[3] More than 560,000 Iowans are covered by Medicaid.[4] Many Iowans receiving help from these work support programs are children; many more are elderly persons in nursing homes.

Make no mistake — this bill has the sole intention of getting Iowans off of work support programs.

One in six Iowans living in working households is unable to afford basic needs such as groceries and health care on income alone.[5] Low wages are the problem and spending millions in taxpayer money to duplicate work support verification will do little to help Iowans get ahead.

SNAP is important for child development, educational outcomes and lifetime earnings.[6] Half of Medicaid enrollees in Iowa are children,[7] and 44 percent of Medicaid spending goes to services for older Iowans.[8] The challenge to Iowa policy makers is how to make sure people who need these supports can get them, not to put new obstacles in their way.

Policies that would really help Iowans get ahead should concentrate on raising wages to account for rising worker productivity. Helpful policies should reinstate workers’ rights and protections. Other policy solutions include expanding Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Care Assistance. It is to these solutions where Iowans need to turn their attention.

 

[1] Jess Benson, “Fiscal Note: SF 334 – Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Eligibility Verification.” February 2019. Iowa Legislative Services Agency. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/FN/1038439.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] Iowa Department of Human Services, “Food Assistance Report Series F-1.” January 2019. http://publications.iowa.gov/29783/1/FA-F1-2016%202019-01.pdf

[4] American Community Survey, “Health Insurance Coverage Status and Type of Coverage by State and Age for All People: 2017. September 2018. U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/health-insurance/acs-hi.html

[5] Peter Fisher and Natalie Veldhouse, “The Cost of Living in Iowa – 2018 Edition: Many Iowa Households Struggle to Meet Basic Needs.” July 2018. Iowa Policy Project. http://iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180702-COL2018-Part2.pdf

[6] Feeding America, “Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation.” 2009. https://www.nokidhungry.org/sites/default/files/child-economy-study.pdf

[7] American Community Survey, “Health Insurance Coverage Status and type of Coverage by State and Age for All People: 2017.” Table H105. September 2018. U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/cps-hi.html

[8] Steve Eiken, Kate Sredl, Brian Burwell & Angie Amos, “Medicaid Expenditures for Long-Term Services and Supports in FY 2016.” Table 31. Iowa LTSS Percentage Trends. https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/ltss/downloads/reports-and-evaluations/ltssexpenditures2016.pdf

2018-NV-6w_3497(1)

 

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org