Today officially marks the end of this year’s tax season which, depending on a person’s filing status, can either mean it’s just another day—with a perk or two—or it’s a day that will be filed with unease because of impending 11:59 pm filing deadline. While the experiences of American taxpayers today will be varied, one thing that many can agree on is that the issue of taxes, from the tax code all the way down to filing, can be very complex. Today, to mark Tax Day, the Asset Building Policy Network (ABPN) would like to focus on the federal tax code and highlight how it’s exacerbating inequality & the racial wealth gap.
Over the past 20 years, the federal government has invested more than $4 trillion through the tax code to help households save, invest and build wealth. However, an overwhelming majority of this investment has gone to the wealthiest Americans who hardly need the support to build more wealth. Since 1994, the federal government’s massive yearly spending on asset-building tax programs has more than doubled and there are no signs of it slowing down.
In 2013, the federal government spent more than half a trillion dollars on asset-building tax programs focused on homeownership, savings, retirement and higher education—an amount larger than the combined discretionary budgets of 14 cabinet-level federal agencies (all but the Department of Defense). These programs, often called “tax expenditures,” take the form of tax credits, deductions, exclusions, exemptions, deferrals and reduced tax rates. But quite simply, a federal tax program is a federal spending program.
Despite the massive federal spending, many tax expenditures are “upside down.” But what does that mean? It means the less income you have, the less these tax programs help you build wealth. It means the $540 billion the federal government spent in 2013—and continues to spend—on these programs is, with a few exceptions, largely serving to expand the wealth of the already wealthy. It means that in 2013, the top 1% and 0.1% of households received an average tax benefit of $23,164 and $33,391, respectively, while the bottom 20% received an average of just $77. Ultimately, it means that working families who need the most help get helped the least.
The truth is that most individuals and families—those in the bottom 60%—receive less than 12% of the benefits from these programs. Households in the top 20% receive about seventy times as much support from these programs as do households in the bottom 20%. The top 1% receives more than a quarter of all support from these programs—more than the entire bottom 80% combined.
So, how does all of this translate into actual, real-world dollar benefits for working families, particularly for households of color? Researchers at the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center found that those who benefitted from the Mortgage Interest Deduction and preferred rate for capital gains—which cost the federal government $69 billion and $92.5 billion in 2013, respectively—were largely concentrated in white communities. For example, in 2012, three-quarters of those benefiting from capital gains resided in ten percent of all ZIP codes, and these ZIP codes tended to be predominately white. However, in counties that were largely made up of households of color, there was a high utilization of the EITC, a tax program targeted to serve working families. More recently, research from PolicyLink shows that within the makeup of the top 20%—the group that receives about seventy times as much support from the tax code as those in the bottom 20%—households of color comprise just 21% of those benefitting deductions, exclusions and preferential rates. This is upside down.
As our country struggles with rising levels of asset poverty, income inequality and a widening racial wealth gap, our federal policies should be targeted at assisting households who are in the most need of support, rather than on providing welfare to millionaires and billionaires. As a coalition of the nation’s preeminent civil rights, advocacy and community development organizations committed to improving the opportunity for economic progress for low‐income individuals, families and communities of color, ABPN believes that today’s inequitable tax code should build the asset base of low-income and households of color—a group which in just 30 years is projected to comprise a majority of the U.S. population—and should contribute in a measurable way to closing the racial wealth gap in this country.
In order to achieve this goal, these tax programs must be turned right-side up, so that we can begin to close the racial wealth gap and make an historic investment in economic opportunity for all.