The problems with Clinton’s child care plan to support student-parents

November 7, 2016

Nontraditional college students are more likely than traditional student to rely on student loans to pay tuition and cover living expenses including child care. As a result, Congress has established higher borrowing limits for these students.                                            

Unfortunately, although they tend to borrow more, students who are also parents are less likely to graduate and reap the benefits of postsecondary education, in part because of the challenges they have in accessing and paying for reliable, safe child care. 

Secretary Clinton seeks to solve this problem by expanding the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program, a grant program administered by the US Department of Education to support campus-based child care centers.

I agree with Secretary Clinton that we need to improve access to affordable child care for all parents, and especially for those who are also students, but the CCAMPIS program may not be the best answer—at least not as the program is currently designed. The most recent evaluation of the program (admittedly, not a particularly comprehensive or robust one) pointed to its lackluster results. (Full disclosure: I was the assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the time of the report.)

For one thing, CCAMPIS allows institutions to use grant funds for everything from renovations of facilities to designing new teacher compensation schemes, and some of these uses may be of minimal benefit to student-parents. 

It is shocking that federal spending per parent ranged from a mere $37 to $23,000 with no apparent correlation between level of spending and observed student-parent outcomes. No attempts were made to measure the impact of campus-based child care on the children’s health or learning outcomes.

While CCAMPIS grantees must provide child care to low-income students based on a sliding fee schedule, they can also provide care for faculty, staff, and members of the community who can be charged full price.

In fact, grantees likely need to serve full-pay parents to generate revenue that counts toward the required institutional contribution and compensates for the revenue losses associated with the required student-parent sliding scale. 

Low-income students could spend years on a campus child care waiting list while parents who have no connection to the institution—but who can pay full price—are served.

Some campus-based child care centers give preference to parents who enroll their children full time, yet few student-parents spend 40 hours a week on campus. If they don’t live near campus or can’t afford full-time care, the center may not meet their needs at all. 

And even centers that enroll children part time may not be able to meet the needs of a student-parent whose class schedule changes every 12 to 15 weeks.

Parent-students who go to school at night may find the child care center closed during those hours, and online students might not even live in the same state as the institution.

Even if evening care is available, how many parents want to regularly drag a sleeping child on a two-bus journey home after evening classes end at 9 or 10 p.m.? For these students, subsidized care in their own community may be more helpful.

According to a recent Atlantic article, it may be that the most beneficial use of CCAMPIS funds would be to support short-term, drop-in child care facilities, similar to those provided by fitness clubs and some retail stores. Lower regulatory hurdles make this type of care less costly and perhaps more helpful to parent-students who depend on free care from family and friends, but need a backup when those arrangements unexpectedly fall through.

What’s a better approach for supporting student-parents?

I agree with both campaigns that, as a nation, we need to do a better job of making affordable, high-quality child care more universally available. However, there is no evidence that expanding the CCAMPIS program is the best way to achieve the goal. 

A better use of funds, as reported by my colleagues Gina Adams and Caroline Heller, may be to supplement the recently reauthorized Community Care Development Fund so that states can meet the unique needs of student-parents through a variety of solutions, including those that provide close-to-home support during nontraditional care hours.


Both Clinton and Trump would reduce tax incentives for charitable giving

November 4, 2016

This post originally appeared on TaxVox.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have proposed income* tax changes that would result in less charitable giving. While the effects are indirect, the Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump’s plan would reduce individual giving by 4.5 percent to 9 percent, or between $13.5 billion and $26.1 billion in 2017, while Clinton’s plan would reduce giving by between 2 percent  and 4 percent, or $6 billion to $11.7 billion.  

The actual reduction in charitable gifts would depend mainly upon how responsive givers would be to smaller tax incentives.  However, higher-income taxpayers would be affected the most. Lower-income households would not likely reduce giving since most do not itemize deductions today and would not under either the Trump or Clinton plans.  

Figure 1 summarizes the increase in the cost (reduction in incentive) of giving under the two plans. The Clinton plan only affects the cost of giving for those in the top 5 percent, while Trump’s plan raises the cost of giving for those at all income levels. 

Charitable giving under Clinton and Trump

Start with Trump, who would reduce the tax benefits of charitable giving in three ways:

First, by reducing marginal tax rates he’d increase the after-tax cost of charitable giving. If you give away $100, you don’t pay tax on that $100 of income, so the after-tax cost of the donation for someone in today’s 39.6 percent top tax bracket is only about $60—the $100 gift minus $39.60 in tax savings. But by reducing the top rate to 33 percent, Trump would raise the after-tax cost of that $100 gift to $67.

Second, by raising the standard deduction to $15,000 ($30,000 for couples), Trump would sharply reduce the number of taxpayers who itemize. People who stop itemizing can no longer deduct their charitable contributions and thus lose the tax break. In 2017, 27 million of the 45 million who now itemize would opt for the standard deduction, a decline of 60 percent.

Finally, Trump would cap itemized deductions at $100,000 for singles and $200,000 for joint filers. IRS data indicate that in 2014 taxpayers with over $1 million in adjusted gross income (AGI) deducted an average of $165,000 for charitable contributions and another $260,000 for state and local taxes. Since the state and local tax deduction alone would exceed Trump’s proposed cap on itemized deduction, many high-income taxpayers would lose their tax incentive to give to charity.

While all these changes might discourage charitable giving, Trump’s generous tax cuts would also leave taxpayers more money to give to charity. This would particularly be true for very high income households: in 2017, tax cuts for people in the top 1 percent would average more than $200,000.

Clinton’s plan would do little to change the giving incentives of taxpayers for the bottom 95 percent of the income distribution. She’d slightly increase incentives for low- and middle-income taxpayers to give to charity by boosting their after-tax incomes.

In contrast to Trump, Clinton would significantly raise taxes on high-income households. She’d impose a 4 percent surcharge on adjusted gross income (AGI) in excess of $5 million, increase capital gains rates based on holding periods, create a minimum tax of 30 percent of AGI phasing in between $1 and $2 million of incomes, and put a 28 percent limit on the value of tax benefits from deductions other than the charitable deduction. On net these not only decrease after-tax incomes, but also lead some current itemizers to take the standard deduction and thereby lose the charitable deduction. The proposal with the largest effective on giving incentives is the 30 percent minimum tax (i.e., the “Buffett Rule”), which would reduce the incentive for affected taxpayers.

Overall both candidates would reduce the tax incentives for giving to charity, probably not what either really intended.

*Update: This analysis only includes changes in the federal income tax. Both Clinton and Trump have also proposed significant changes to the estate tax that would impact incentives to donate to charity and leave charitable bequests. Clinton’s proposal to lower the estate tax threshold and increase estate tax rates would increase giving incentives, while Trump’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax would reduce them.


The next president's urban opportunity

November 4, 2016

This post originally appeared on CityLab.

If voting patterns follow population trends, Tuesday’s election will be the most “urban” the United States has ever seen. More people live in America’s cities and metropolitan areas today than ever before. And for the first time since World War II, many US cities are growing at the same rate or faster than their suburbs, which for decades absorbed most of the population growth in metropolitan areas.

The Great Recession caused younger families to delay (or avoid) purchasing homes in the suburbs, and demand for urban amenities has grown as both large employers and small startups have returned to central cities. Demographic changes in coming decades are likely to accelerate the growth of cities, as millennials, aging baby boomers, and immigrants increasingly choose to live in urban neighborhoods.

At the same time that our cities are growing, income inequality is on the rise in the United States, and this disparity is greatest in our largest cities. According to a Brookings Institution report from earlier this year, large metropolitan areas in the United States—as well as their central cities—tend to have greater income inequality than the nation as a whole. And the widening gap between rich and poor people within metropolitan areas coincides with a widening gap between rich and poor places. As colleagues at the Urban Institute recently demonstrated, the disparities between America’s most- and least-affluent neighborhoods within metropolitan areas have grown rapidly over the past two decades.

Income inequality has dominated national political discourse this year, taking center stage in the primary debates and party conventions (and to a lesser extent in the contentious general election presidential debates). Many observers, including President Obama, have declared that “combating rising inequality” is the most important challenge facing the next president. This should come as no surprise: after all, income inequality nationwide has surged to levels last seen before the Great Depression, and voters are feeling the squeeze.

But if inequality is greatest within cities and across metropolitan areas, why hasn’t either presidential candidate applied a distinctly “urban” lens to the challenges of this growing problem? And how can the president we elect on Tuesday harness demographic changes and economic shifts in cities to reverse this trend and help reduce inequality in these places?

The answer to the first question may be easier. At a political level, America’s city dwellers are overwhelmingly Democratic voters, so the Clinton campaign may take them for granted, while the Trump campaign may handily dismiss them. This would explain why Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier” plan to improve economic opportunity for poor communities and people of color doesn’t specifically earmark funds for cities. It would also explain Trump’s willingness to describe urban neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latinos and African Americans as a living “hell” and declare that "places like Afghanistan are safer than some US inner cities.”

More pragmatically, many of the policy levers that could prove most effective at reducing economic inequalities in cities—such as housing, education, land use, transportation, and economic development—are primarily (although not exclusively) controlled by state or local governments. Under our nation’s federalist political system, and in light of the powerful tradition of local control in many of these policy arenas, an aggressive “urban agenda” by a presidential candidate (or sitting president) could be seen as radical overreach.  

But does this mean that our next president is bound to stand idly by as inequality continues to widen in our nation’s cities? Far from it. After all, many of the patterns of segregation and uneven development we see today were driven by decades of federal policies and (dis)investments, from racial redlining in credit markets to the siting of public housing developments and the funding of interstate highways. Of course, some federal solutions that would help unwind these barriers or affirmatively promote economic equality would require congressional action—a dubious proposition in the current political climate, regardless of who wins. But there is still plenty that the next president could do, early in the new administration, without legislation.

Here are three broad suggestions:

  • Break down silos. The effectiveness of existing federal investments in cities is hampered by entrenched divisions and communication gaps between the federal agencies that administer them. All too often one agency doesn’t know what investments another is making in a particular place. Programmatic priorities may conflict with each other, and grants often include onerous and inconsistent reporting requirements. The Obama administration made significant progress in breaking down these silos by incentivizing government agencies to adopt place-based approaches and by encouraging inter-agency coordination in the targeting of particular areas. But much more could be done. In this regard, the federal government can draw inspiration (and models) from local governments that are leveraging both new technologies and bold leadership to share data and create cross-functional teams that increase coordination and improve accountability across city agencies.
  • Incentivize inclusionary policies. The greatest tool at the federal government’s disposal is its money. Each year, the federal government distributes more than $600 billion, about 17 percent of its budget, to states and localities, providing about a quarter of their general revenues. Agencies could give cities that take certain qualifying steps to overcome economic inequalities a “leg up” for the share of these grants that are awarded competitively. HUD has experimented with this approach by awarding bonus points in discretionary grant applications to jurisdictions that participated in the Sustainable Communities Initiative and contributed to region-wide sustainability plans. Clinton’s Breaking Every Barrier proposal seems to take a similar approach by rewarding jurisdictions that “implement land-use strategies that make it easier to build affordable rental housing near good jobs” with competitive grants from the Department of Transportation. The impact of these incentives could be even greater if bonus points were coordinated and awarded across agencies.
  • Get ahead of the curve. Increasingly, local governments are developing predictive analytics with their own data and private sector “big data” to get ahead of the curve and prevent problems such as traffic collisions, homelessness, and public health hazards. Making public data more visible through open data portals has also unleashed the creativity of other civic-minded actors that have developed technology solutions to some of the most difficult challenges. The federal government has access to a wealth of data on cities. Federal agencies manage 8.4 billion records, and much of this data is or could be geocoded. More recently, the Obama administration launched the Opportunity Project, which made federal and local datasets available through open data agreements to support the development of tools that promote economic opportunity. The next administration could take this work several steps further by investing in the integration of data, from both within and outside the federal government, to make projections about stresses cities face that may drive inequalities, from property abandonment to gentrification pressures, and redeploy both financial and technical resources to help direct growth towards more inclusive outcomes.

Of course, there are also plenty of proposals out there that evidence suggests would go far in promoting economic opportunity and mobility in cities, but would require legislative action. For example, more funding for housing vouchers or major investments in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. But these solutions would require significant pressure to break the political gridlock in Washington and a renewed federal commitment to robust and coordinated investments in America’s cities.

To generate such momentum, all cannot depend solely on urban voters, despite their growing numbers. Rather the case should be made that with two-thirds of the nation’s GDP being generated in cities, the economic future of our cities is also the economic future of our country. The United States will not succeed in becoming a more prosperous, equal and opportunity-rich nation if it fails to meet the needs of its cities.


The problem with talking about “inner cities”

November 3, 2016

Last week, Donald Trump unveiled his “New Deal for Black America: With a Plan for Urban Renewal.” In this plan, he writes, “year after year the condition of black America gets worse. The conditions in our inner cities today are unacceptable,” thereby explicitly associating African Americans with the inner city—which Trump has done time and again in speeches and presidential debates. 

Accordingly, his “new deal” places a particular focus on inner cities; for example, the plan offers strategies such as implementing “tax holidays for inner city investment” and proposes using “a portion of the money saved by enforcing our laws, and suspending refugees, to reinvested [sic] in our inner cities.”

Beyond the lack of clarity and consistency among the plan’s strategies, Trump misses an important reality: not all African Americans live in the “inner city,” which in itself is a vague and loosely defined geography. The evidence also shows that African Americans, like every other community living in the United States, are too diverse for generalizations as broad as Trump’s plan implies.

The term “inner city” gained popularity through the work of urban theorists and sociologists in the 1960s and 1970s to describe central cities and the communities of color who lived there. Even Jane Jacobs, the famous opponent to federal urban renewal, talked about the widespread “inner city stagnation and decay” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

But the “inner city” has no formal census-designated definition and is largely a colloquial and rhetorical device. Thus, in my attempts to characterize these areas, I use the central city within a given metropolitan area as an imperfect proxy for an “inner city.”

Atlanta—one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas, especially for African Americans—is an instructive case. As the map below shows, African Americans live well beyond the central city of Atlanta, with predominantly black neighborhoods dispersed across the metropolitan landscape. Only 12 percent of the Atlanta metropolitan area’s black residents live inside the city of Atlanta.

Atlanta metro

This is not a story unique to Atlanta, either. In Philadelphia, 53 percent of the metropolitan area’s black residents live in the city proper, and in Baltimore, only 48 percent do.

In the third presidential debate, Trump said that “our inner cities are a disaster… They have no education. They have no jobs.” Atlanta sharply contradicts this contention. Almost 15,000 of the city’s black residents have graduate or professional degrees, and almost a quarter of its households earn more than the area median income of $64,000 for a family of four.

Furthermore, in framing this plan under the banner of urban renewal, Trump is venerating a period in urban history that involved top-down development that often had disproportionately harmful impacts on predominately minority neighborhoods in central cities. He is offering a narrative of African Americans that is false, outdated, and dismissive of structural forces and policy decisions that have contributed to the perpetuation of black poverty.

The majority black and brown neighborhoods characterized by concentrated poverty that Trump’s plan targets are very much products of outright housing discrimination and a set of deliberate strategies to block wealth accumulation. These are among a multitude of racially biased laws, policies, and private-sector actions whose legacies benefit white communities to this day often at the expense of poor communities of color across the nation.

In using this coded language of the “inner city,” Trump is simultaneously invoking and attempting to downplay the troublesome history of urban policy in our nation. By conflating the inner city with African Americans generally, which Trump’s new plan does, he is telling a story of African Americans and establishing a policy agenda that is not based in evidence and is problematically incomplete. 


How many presidential candidates does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

October 31, 2016

Another presidential campaign season has come and (almost) gone with little attention to climate change and the future of energy production. Though both candidates have made statements on those topics, they have not received much national debate.

By diminishing energy and climate change’s importance as a campaign topic, we lose another chance to analyze the plans, discuss their merits, and make actual progress toward putting out the global fires that await the next president.  

Finding the light switch

The biggest challenge to analyzing their energy solutions is that the candidates don’t agree on the problem or the goals. Most of the attention in this election has been on the candidates’ belief in climate science. Clinton has publicized her confidence in climate science, while Trump has variably denied its findings or reframed questions about his position.

The evidence on climate change has been clear for some time, yet the same debate has been rehashed for several election cycles going back as far as 2000. That debates over fundamentally accepted science are still at the center of political attention 16 years later prohibits any substantive conversation about energy beyond monitoring today’s price at the pump.

Keeping the lights on

Both candidates actually agree on at least two goals: to provide enough energy for current need and future growth, and to be “energy independent”—that is, to rely solely on US or allies’ energy sources.

Clinton has framed the latter as a national security issue while Trump has focused on its domestic economic and employment benefits. Both are accurate assessments of the outcomes of self-reliance, but the platforms have benefitted from the fact that US-sourced natural gas has increased as a share of electrical power plants’ fuel compared to coal—reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants by about half while depressing energy prices and making us ostensibly more self-reliant. Considering that we still import a sizeable amount of fuel (especially petroleum) from not-so-friendly sources, we’re actually a bit far from independence.

Where candidates diverge is on how they plan to get to this state, and how other goals (like mitigating climate change) guide their paths. Clinton supports the Obama administration’s signature Clean Power Plan (CPP), as well as US ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. She proposes an aggressive shift toward more renewable energy production that exceeds current industry expectations, while using existing fossil-fuel based sources in the near future as a “bridge.”

Clinton has also supported “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing of deep rock to extract natural gas) in the past, too, with certain qualifiers.  

Trump plans to dramatically expand natural gas extraction and coal production as well as open up all other untapped sources of energy including those on federal lands but not necessarily at the exclusion of cost-competitive renewables. Trump plans to scrap the CPP along with other EPA regulations and pull out of the Paris agreement.

Paying the bills

The CPP (still held up in court) would foreseeably lead to price increases in energy but with consequent savings on health care costs as well as other cobenefits. The additional focus on low-income households’ energy use through the CPP’s Clean Energy Incentive Program would also provide opportunities to diminish the cost burden on this group, though programs to date have had mixed successes.

Clinton proposes regulations, incentives, and expanded assistance to low-income households. She also proposes paying special attention to energy needs and climate change effects on the most environmentally vulnerable communities. Clinton supplements these sticks with carrots for household solar installations, with similar programs in places like Arizona having massive success in transitioning energy sources while reducing household energy costs. Other cities and states are already producing energy efficiency and renewable programs by the day, too.

Trump’s “energy revolution” is proposed to wean the country off all foreign energy imports while purportedly not causing any adverse environmental impacts. The revenues from energy production, according to his statements, would then be used to rebuild “roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure,” though that transfer of funds is not detailed. He also labels his opponent’s plan as “job killing” when combined with other environmental regulations, energy efficiency standards, reductions in fossil fuel-industry subsidies, and renewable energy incentives.

The biggest sector for job transition is certainly in the coal industry, and Clinton has proposed retraining and other assistance plans, though the success of these kinds of programs is still mixed as Urban colleagues describe. But the job-killing aspects of energy transitions for energy workers—or, for the economy as a whole from higher energy prices—are not fully supported even with more aggressive policies beyond either candidate’s current positions like a carbon tax (a position neither candidate currently supports).

For both platforms, there will be immediate costs to the country and to individual Americans’ pocketbooks. And, as science is showing us, there will be future costs to our energy policies. These costs have all been lurking in the shadows in this year’s debate spotlight. But, the light from the world’s burning just might be the one that lets us see the candidates’ platforms.


We’ve heard about income on the campaign trail, but what about wealth?

October 20, 2016

With the election nearing, the presidential candidates are making their final appeals to voters. We’ve heard candidates’ stances on several pocketbook issues—the minimum wage, child care costs, taxes—but neither Clinton nor Trump have spoken much about wealth.

Different from income, wealth—what a family owns minus what it owes—is a key means for families to weather emergencies, afford a down payment or college tuition, and secure a comfortable retirement. Yet for many decades now, some Americans have been falling behind. Twenty percent of families hold only about $4,000 or less in wealth. The median family has about $80,000—no more than what the median family in the 1980s possessed (adjusted for prices), despite an economy in which average income and average wealth has about doubled since then.

Young families and families of color have fallen especially behind. People in their 20s and 30s today appear to be on a slower wealth-building trajectory than their parents’ generations. African American and Hispanic households on average have not gained at all in recent decades relative to white families on key wealth accumulation measures such as homeownership and retirement savings.

Right now, federal wealth building incentives happen mainly in the tax code through subsidies that give little support to low- and middle-income families: Less than 10 percent of two major housing tax subsidies goes to the bottom 60 percent of earners, and less than 15 percent of three major retirement savings tax subsidies do so.

Both candidates’ tax plans would, as a side effect, reduce these largely inefficient tax subsidies—Clinton’s by limiting the value of itemized deductions and Trump’s through moving more taxpayers to take the standard deduction, capping itemized deductions, and lowering rates. Since many of these deductions likely subsidize savings that would have occurred anyway, limiting them would likely have little effect on saving. But would the candidates replace them with policies that help families save more and borrow smarter?

There are many avenues beyond tax policy to encourage wealth-building: lifting asset limits in safety net programs, incubating innovative consumer financial products while curbing harmful or unproductive ones, and supporting state initiatives to expand automatic enrollment in retirement accounts, to name a few. Unfortunately, they haven't gotten much attention in debates or stump speeches in this election cycle. Before Election Day, it would be informative—and refreshing—for these issues to be put more in the limelight. 


In the news: Hillary Clinton's urban agenda

October 19, 2016

In Next City, senior fellow Solomon Greene discusses how Hillary Clinton's “Breaking Every Barrier” agenda could help struggling communities in American cities. (For more information, check out Greene's earlier analysis of Clinton's plan and how it could connect housing to opportunity.)


How would the candidates deal with the natural disasters that lurk ahead?

October 17, 2016

During this election season, we’ve already seen several natural and environmental hazards wreak havoc. The Louisiana floods this past August and the current wake from Hurricane Matthew are the most recent examples of the 39 major disaster declarations in 2016—so far. Government aid has come to Louisiana while damage is still being assessed along the southeastern seaboard.

We’ve also seen the two major presidential candidates talk about these recent disasters, visit them in some cases, and invariably offer their “thoughts and prayers.” Neither candidate has an explicit policy platform on disaster management. To be fair, few presidential candidates in recent history have brought up disaster planning and assistance in their stump speeches.

What should happen during and after disasters?

A new president needs to know two fundamental things about disaster management: how it works administratively between the various levels of government and how much it costs the federal government.

Neither candidate has said much about the latter or about the ongoing trend of increasing federal resources for disaster relief and recovery.

With regard to intergovernmental management, though, some past comments give insight. After Katrina, for example, then-Senator Clinton argued for a reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security so that FEMA could better equip itself to its former capacity under former President Clinton’s FEMA Chief James Lee Witt—an organization described by most disaster experts as competent and efficient in the face of disasters like Hurricane Andrew.

After 9/11, Clinton was also involved in congressional disaster recovery appropriations.

After Hurricane Sandy, private citizen Trump accused the Obama administration of excessive, politically motivated relief handouts. 

What should happen before disasters?

There is even less in either candidate’s past statements to suggest that they have considered how best to prepare for disasters. Disaster preparedness and mitigation—improving infrastructure, homes, and communities before disasters—has received bipartisan support. A promising policy improvement would be to allocate relatively more resources to mitigation than recovery compared with current policy.

Trump noted recently that revisiting infrastructure due to phenomena like rising sea levels is “probably not the worst thing [he’s] ever heard.” Clinton said recently that disasters pose a threat to local infrastructure and national security. Going further back to the Democratic primary, Clinton also referenced “resilience and mitigation” as a growing need that required bipartisan action.

What should our next president focus on?

We’ve talked before the increasing quantity of disasters and the magnitude of disaster damages. Though there are many natural hazards like earthquakes that are unrelated to climate change’s effects, the severity and frequency of others—tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and severe storms and floods—are likely to continue increasing.

Having some basic commitment to increasing mitigation in proportion with recovery resources is a start for either candidate. Getting into a few weeds about infrastructure spending is even better. But working out the details of the property insurance—especially National Flood Insurance Program—and disaster planning and awareness at the local levels is going to get us further down the path.

Clinton has stated a link between climate change and disasters, while Trump has (arguably) dismissed climate change, its effects on disaster rates, and the impacts of disasters on communities. If scientific evidence provides any indication of what is to come, whoever is elected will have to reckon with these crises—and how to pay for them.


From TaxVox: What Trump’s and Buffett’s tax returns say about how the wealthy are taxed

October 13, 2016

This post originally appeared on TaxVox.

The individual income tax has never taxed the very wealthy much. Donald Trump may have claimed huge losses starting in the early 1990s, but, like other rich investors, he wouldn’t have paid much tax regardless. Despite paying some tax, Warren Buffett’s release of his 2015 tax return affirms that conclusion.

There are two major reasons: first, paying individual income taxes on capital income is largely discretionary, since investors don’t pay tax on their gains until they sell an asset. Second, taxpayers can easily leverage capital gains and other tax preferences by borrowing, deducting expenses, and taking losses at higher ordinary rates while their income is taxed at lower rates. Such tax arbitrage is, in part, what Trump did.

To be fair, some, like Buffett, live modestly relative to their means and still contribute most of what they earn to society through charity. Some pay hefty property and estate taxes and bear high regulatory burdens. And salaried professionals and others with high incomes from work, whether wealthy or not, may pay fairly high tax rates on their labor income. Still, there are many ways for the wealthy to avoid reporting high net income produced by their wealth.

The phenomenon is not new. In studies over 30 years ago, I concluded that only about one-third of net income from wealth or capital was reported on individual tax returns. Taxpayers are much more likely to report (and deduct) their expenses than their positive income. In related studies, I and others found that rich taxpayers reported 3 percent or less of their wealth as taxable income each year.

But your favorite billionaire did not get that way by earning low single-digit returns to his wealth. Buffett’s 2015 adjusted gross income (of $11.6 million) would be around one-fiftieth of 1 percent of his wealth, which in recent years has been estimated to be near to $65 billion. Yet, over the past five complete calendar years, Buffett’s main investment, Berkshire Hathaway, has returned an average of over 10 percent annually.

The wealthy effectively avoid paying taxes on those high returns either by never selling assets and thus never recognizing capital gains, deferring income long enough that the effective tax rate is much lower, or by timing asset sales so they offset losses, as Trump likely has been doing to use up his losses from 1995.

When you die, the accrued but unrealized gains generated over your lifetime are passed to your heirs completely untaxed, though estate tax can be paid by those who, unlike Buffett, don’t give most away to charity.

“Tax arbitrage,” the second technique, is simple in concept though complex in practice. It allows an investor to leverage special tax subsidies just as she’d arbitrage up any investment—in this case, to yield multiple tax breaks. If you buy a $10 million building with $1 million of your own money and borrow the other $9 million, you’d get 10 times the tax breaks of a person who puts up $1 million but, because she doesn’t borrow, buys only a $1 million building.

The law limits the extent to which most people can use deductions and losses from one investment to offset income from other efforts, but “active” investors are exempt from most of those restrictions. In real estate it is quite common for the active individual or partner to use the interest, depreciation, and other expenses from a new investment to generate net negative taxable income to offset positive income generated by other, often older, investments.

The main trick is simply to let enough income from all the investments accrue as capital gains. For example, take a set of properties that generate $1 million in rents and $500,000 in unrealized appreciation. If expenses are $1,200,000, net economic income would be $300,000 ($1,000,000 plus $500,000 minus $1,200,000); but net taxable income would be a negative $200,000 ($1,000,000 minus $1,200,000) since the unrealized appreciation is not taxable income.

Real estate owners enjoy other tax benefits as well. They can sell a property without declaring the capital gain by swapping the asset for another piece of real estate—a practice known as a “like-kind” exchange. Often, when a property changes hands it ends up being depreciated more than once.

At the end of the day, tweaks to the individual income tax system, including higher tax rates, are unlikely to increase dramatically the taxes paid by the very wealthy. Instead, policymakers need to think more broadly about how estate, property, corporate, and individual income taxes fit together and how to reduce the use of tax arbitrage to game the system. 


From TaxVox: How much do you know about Clinton’s and Trump’s tax plans?

October 12, 2016

This post originally appeared on TaxVox.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have proposed major changes to US tax policy, but they have dramatically different visions of what the tax code should look like, who should pay, and how much. How much tax you’ll owe and the size of the future national debt could depend on who wins in November. 

But how much do you know about what the candidates want to do about taxes? Test your knowledge with the Tax Policy Center’s Presidential Candidate Tax Quiz.

Our eight-question quiz asks about the tax changes Clinton and Trump have proposed, how those changes would affect the amount of tax different income groups pay, and how those changes would affect federal revenue. (If you want to study before taking the quiz, here are a couple of cheat sheets that might help: federal taxes are progressive and the federal government gets most revenue from income taxes and payroll taxes.)

After you answer each question, we’ll explain why you got it right or wrong and at the end of the quiz, we’ll give you a final score. Share it with your friends on Twitter and Facebook.

All questions and answers are based on our updated analyses of Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s tax proposals. Whether you aced the quiz or need to study up, be sure to check out those reports for more details on each candidate’s proposals.