Tax-Code Social Policy

Of life's two certainties - death and taxes - which is shrouded in more mystery?

In the past few weeks, most Americans have been poring over piles of papers, receipts and complicated sets of instructions in an effort to decipher where they fit in the U.S. tax system. But equally significant to American taxpayers are the social policies that are hidden deep within our complex tax code. And this year especially, these camouflaged social policies overwhelmingly favor America's wealthiest citizens.

Take pensions, for example. Americans who participate in pension and savings programs which, these days are predominantly 401(k) or Keoghs and defined benefit plans, receive $106.4 billion through exclusions in the tax code. Most of these go to families earning $100,000 a year or more, as the wealthiest employees are more likely to get these benefits through their employers. Indeed, the highest wage workers are nearly five times as likely to have pension coverage as the lowest-wage workers according to the Economic Policy Institute. And, of course, the well-off among us have more money to put away for retirement. As a result, billions of government subsidies now go to those who can most afford to save and don't need as much incentive to do so.

Tax breaks for health care coverage are also skewed toward higher wage workers who are most likely to receive health coverage from their employers according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. These American workers get $200 billion in annual government subsidies for their health expenses because their employer's contributions to their health insurance carriers aren't taxed to them, and because our tax code allows Americans to reduce their taxable income through flexible spending and personal medical funds.

As for housing, once again, our tax code social policy gives significantly more money to the most well-off amongst us. The United States provides $90 billion yearly in housing subsidies in the form of mortgage deductions. Those with the highest incomes and the most expensive homes (including second or third homes) receive the largest subsidies.

According to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, more than half of the $90 billion homeowner subsidies were taken by the 11.8 percent of U.S. taxpayers with incomes over $100,000. Wealthy households, of course, are more likely to own homes and itemize deductions. Half of all homeowners who make too little to itemize claim no deductions at all. Renters, of course, do not benefit. However, the annual total of mortgage deductions is more than nineteen times as much as the low-income housing tax credits provided to developers of affordable housing.

Government expenditures through our current tax code social policy get little debate or discussion. They are, however, open ended. But while billions flow into the pockets of higher-income Americans through our tax code, programs for low-income health care coverage for children get shot down on Capitol Hill. And there is nowhere for individuals to send in their tax refunds to pay for road repairs, high-end equipment at local hospitals, or science labs at public schools, as much as opinion polls indicate that we value those shared results of social policy that are primarily developed outside the tax code.

Tax code social policy, as the authors in Inequality and American Democracy (Russell Sage Foundation, 2005) point out, may also have some other negative effects in terms of how we view government and get involved in the political process. With universal programs such as the GI bill or Social Security, Americans can clearly see the benefits that they get for their tax dollars and the positive role of government. With tax deductions or credits that mask government expenditures, however, that's much less obvious. Over time, the role of government becomes disconnected from the benefits it provides, and people tend to lose interest, participate less and feel more like government is on their backs than on their side. And this feeds a cycle of political inequality, where our elected officials pay less heed to the desires of many citizens who aren't among their big ticket contributors, thus alienating more of us from political participation.

It is time to take social policy out of our tax code. Instead of creating tax policies that give greatest benefit to the wealthiest amongst us, we need to challenge our elected officials to rewrite the laws to benefit every day working Americans. As a start, we need to have programs to ensure that all Americans have health care coverage, adequate resources for retirement, and affordable housing.

For those who will claim there is no money for these and other social programs, let's not forget the billions of dollars our government spends every day to subsidize the better off amongst us. On tax day, it is those Americans who will file for and receive the biggest refunds from Uncle Sam. As our country descends into deeper financial turbulence, it's time to consider how to take social policy out of the tax code and put it back on the agenda for serious discussion.