By: Kevin Seifert
As the nation responds to the economic turbulence caused by COVID-19, Congress should build on elements of the American Rescue Plan by further reforming and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Since 1975, the Earned Income Tax Credit has proven to be one of the federal government’s most effective poverty-fighting programs and enhancing the credit is one of the best ways Congress can ensure a strong, bottom-up recovery from the pandemic.
A common-sense expansion of the EITC is precisely the medicine the U.S. economy needs to return to full health. The economy is still 6.7 million jobs short of its February 2020 levels but as the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life reported this month, 3 in 4 individuals who have been unemployed for less than two years are currently looking or planning to look for work. Correspondingly, employers are hungry for workers and need them to keep up with rising demand for goods and services.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the federal government erected new short-term disincentives – most notably through enhanced unemployment benefits and other direct payment programs, that have slowed individuals’ re-entry into the workforce. While stabilizing measures were necessary at the pandemic’s outset, Congress needs to shift from emergency responses to policies that help individuals and families over the long-term. An expansion of the Earned Income Credit will accomplish this by incentivizing labor-force participation and targeting benefits to those individuals and families most in-need.
As the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain succinctly stated: “If you want more of something, subsidize it.” The EITC benefit is equal to a percentage of annual earnings and determined by the number of children living in the household. In short, it is a tax credit that subsidizes work. For millions of Americans with lower-incomes, because of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the more they earn, the larger the benefit they receive. The EITC’s intentional design not only helps employers and their employees but it directly aids families and their children as well. The benefit helps society’s most vulnerableand because it is tied to earnings, it reinforces the values that come with a steady paycheck.
The effectiveness of the EITC is precisely why Members of Congress already agreed to expand the benefit via the American Rescue Plan. The recent reforms extended the benefit to Americans aged 19 to 24, increasing the credit’s maximum value and the income cap for adults without children. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, these reforms will help over 17 million low-income Americans.
In a time of legislative gridlock, these changes made to the EITC via the American Rescue Plan were a meaningful step in the right direction, but Congress should not stop there.
Congress can easily address the significant marriage penalty associated with the current Earned Income Tax Credit. Many low-income families are faced with a choice of remaining unmarried or losing EITC benefits. Congress can fix this “benefit cliff” by increasing the income limit where the EITC begins to phase-out and by reducing the phase-out rate. This would help lawmakers achieve the dual goals of incentivizing work and encouraging family formation.
Though the Earned Income Tax Credit has been historically focused on individuals with children, further increasing the overall amount of the credit for single individuals would promote work among younger Americans and assist a wider array of people battling poverty. There are 5.8 million working age adults without children, including 1.5 million Latino and 1 million Black workers, who stand to benefit from a more expansive EITC. And given those who lost jobs during COVID-19 generally skew younger, an EITC expansion for single individuals would give this cohort a timely boost, pushing job-seekers into the workforce and incentivizing continued employment.
The EITC is already one of the largest federal safety-net programs and these potential enhancements are not without costs, which is why legislators should scour the federal budget to identify offsets. One option, long supported by both conservatives and good-government advocates, is reducing the billions in improper payments associated with the IRS’ processing of the EITC. Another approach is to reduce spending on ineffective federal poverty-fighting programs that lack the evidence and data to justify continued funding. The federal government could reallocate funds from under-performing social programs and put them towards an enhanced EITC. The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on fighting-poverty and it should be prioritizing programs that actually improve outcomes. The EITC has demonstrated its effectiveness over decades and expanding the program would be consistent with taking an evidence-based approach to battling poverty.
An enhanced tax credit that reduces the marriage penalty, fixes the “benefit cliffs” and increases benefits for single individuals would address our labor-force participation issues and would assist those battling persistent poverty or temporary financial difficulties related to COVID-19. It would help families, job-seekers, and job-creators alike.
A more generous Earned Income Tax Credit is not a silver bullet to alleviate poverty, but it does represent one of the most powerful tools at the federal government’s disposal. It has already done a great deal to help Americans economically and if Congress continues to sensibly build on the program, it will benefit even more in the future.
Kevin Seifert is the Vice President of the American Idea Foundation, a non-profit headed by former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan committed to promoting evidence-based public policies and programs that expand economic opportunities and fight poverty. This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill.