The Fiscal Cliff and Poor People

The fiscal cliff will remain in the headlines as the January 1 deadline for reaching a deficit reduction agreement looms. What’s in it for poor people? A lot.

If Congress and the President don’t act, several things will happen automatically on January 1; the convergence of these things comprises the fiscal cliff. The Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cut, and the 2009 improvements to low-income tax credits would all expire, causing taxes to increase on all Americans and by an estimated $2,200 for the average, middle class family. Discretionary federal spending, both defense and non-defense, would be cut drastically through a process called sequestration. Head Start, child care, WIC, housing assistance, and other low-income programs would all be affected. In addition, over two million people would immediately lose their unemployment compensation, since all extensions beyond 26 weeks would expire.

Economists agree that this combination of substantial tax increases and deep spending cuts would put the economy into recession. Therefore, President Obama and Congress will be working towards a deficit reduction agreement that would take effect before January 1 and that would spare us from going over the cliff.

For low-income people it’s of paramount importance that any deficit reduction agreement does not increase poverty or income inequality. Every previous deficit reduction agreement has adhered to this bedrock principle, as did the Bowles-Simpson Bipartisan Commission on deficit reduction.  

The items of greatest and most direct concern to low-income people in the fiscal cliff showdown are the fate of Medicaid and the 2009 improvements to the low-income tax credits.

Cutting Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans, would not only harm those who are already participating but would jeopardize the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Medicaid expansion. The U. S. Supreme Court, in upholding the ACA, said that states may not be penalized if they choose not to expand Medicaid. The ACA makes expansion financially attractive to states as the federal government picks up 100% of the cost in the first years and 90% thereafter. Cuts to Medicaid, however, may cause states to worry that future changes would make this matching formula less favorable, discouraging them from proceeding with the Medicaid expansion.

The budget adopted by the House Republicans last year would have turned Medicaid into a block grant to the states. Election results have pushed block granting Medicaid off the table. However, those who want to cut Medicaid substantially may now push for a per-person cap on the federal Medicaid match, another version of a block grant that would shift the entire risk of increasing health care costs onto the states.

The second major objective for low-income people in the deficit–reduction debate is to extend the 2009 improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). These improvements increased the EITC for families with three or more children and reduced the level of earnings a family must have before it can qualify for the CTC.  Failure to extend these provisions will drive nearly one million children into poverty.

The fate of these tax credits is related to the debate about how to raise more revenue.  President Obama has insisted that the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest 2%--individuals with income over $200,000 and couples with income over $250,000--return to the pre-Bush tax cut level of 39.6% from the current 35%. The Republicans have pushed to increase revenue by reducing tax expenditures rather than raising tax rates. There are two problems with this. First, reducing tax expenditures would substantially limit the value of the charitable tax deduction to upper-income people, resulting in fewer and smaller donations to charities that provide vital services to low-income people. Second, the low-income tax credits are themselves tax expenditures and would be vulnerable to being cut if the revenue increases are achieved by reducing tax expenditures rather than raising tax rates.

The future of the Medicaid expansion, low-income tax credits that lift a million families out of poverty, unemployment compensation for 2 million people, and massive cuts in programs that serve low-income people—all are hanging in the balance.  Our message to the politicians is simple and clear—reach a deficit reduction agreement that does not increase poverty or income inequality.

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