Misguided Expansion of the Child Tax Credit

This post was authored by Elaine Maag of the Tax Policy Center and originally appeared on their TaxVox blog. We are re-posting with her permission. 

Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins (R-KN) wants to expand the child tax credit (CTC) with the Child Tax Credit Improvement Act of 2014. She’s on the right track, but her proposed expansions are ill-targeted and fail to address the credit’s biggest looming issue: the change in refundability that will hit the poorest recipients after 2017.

Jenkins’s plan would index the credit for inflation and extend the credit to higher-income married couples­­­. There are better alternatives. A much cheaper option would simply continue today’s relatively generous version of the program after 2017. An even better solution would make the credit refundable for all families, starting at the first dollar of earnings. Such a change would cost about as much as Jenkins’s plan but would target assistance to the neediest workers rather than higher-income households, as she would.

The CTC provides a credit of up to $1,000 per child. The basic credit is not refundable—that is, it can only offset income tax you would otherwise owe—but the “additional child tax credit” is. Parents can receive 15 cents for every dollar of earnings above $3,000 – until they reach the maximum credit. Without that refundability, families that owe no income tax would not benefit.

But after 2017, that $3,000 refundability threshold is scheduled to jump to around $15,000 and rise with inflation going forward.

President Obama proposed making the current threshold permanent as part of this year’s budget at a cost of about $72 billion over 10 years (12.1 billion in 2023). Two-thirds of the benefits from that extension would flow to workers in the 20 percent of households with the lowest income.

Contrast that with the Child Tax Credit Improvement Act of 2014. It would boost the income level above which the credit phases out from the current $110,000 to $150,000 for married couples, making the credit available to many higher-income households. It would also index the $1,000 per child credit amount and the phaseout thresholds for all parents. JCT estimates the proposal would cost $115 billion over 10-years ($18.4 billion in 2023).

The bill has some good elements. Indexing the credit (as opposed to the phaseout level) would prevent the value of the CTC from eroding. Boosting the phaseout levels would protect many middle-income couples from being hit by a marriage penalty as their credit declines.

But these changes focus benefits on high income families, and ignore the looming cut in the CTC for low-income families. Two-thirds of the bill’s benefits would go to workers in the top 40 percent of the income distribution. That’s not the best use of limited tax dollars.

Congress has better alternatives. Besides adopting the President’s proposal of making the $3,000 refundability threshold permanent – which targets nearly two-thirds of benefits at families with the lowest 20 percent of incomes, it could eliminate the refundability threshold entirely, so that low-income working parents would start to benefit from the CTC when they earn their first dollar. That would simplify the tax code and also provide benefits to the poorest workers. Last year, the Tax Policy Center estimated that change would cost about the same as the Jenkins bill ($16.3 billion in 2023). But it would be much more progressive. Just over two-thirds of the benefits would go to families in the lowest 20 percent of incomes.

Reforming the CTC is a great idea. But reforms ought to be targeted at those most in need. Before doing anything else, Congress should make the current refundability threshold permanent.