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One of the little-noticed moves by President Biden in his first days in office was an executive order that required federal agencies to examine their policies and programs to identify whether and how they perpetuate barriers to equal opportunity. It was a stab at addressing structural inequality in the wake of the national protests over the death of George Floyd. At least some of that work seems to be coming to fruition. 

This week, the Treasury Department released a study looking at racial disparities in the benefits that come through the tax code—like special lower tax rates for capital gains or deductions for employer-provided health insurance. In theory, these policies are color-blind. But the Treasury report shows that they are anything but. 

Tax expenditures have become a popular tool in Congress to provide benefits to families that otherwise would be bigger targets for budget cutters. They don’t show up as program expenses the way anti-poverty programs like food stamps or TANF benefits do. But the differences are staggering. Consider TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, otherwise known as welfare. Congress has refused to increase the block grant for the program since its inception in 1996, so it’s been stuck at $16.5 billion, with its real value falling by 40 percent thanks to inflation. In many states, the maximum monthly TANF benefit to a poor family with a single parent and two kids is a pittance, particularly in states where many Black people live below the poverty line. In Alabama, for instance, the maximum benefit for a family of three is just $215, a figure that hasn’t budged since 2005.

Compare the TANF budget to the loss of revenue to the government caused by the special treatment of capital gains, investment income that’s taxed at a much lower rate than ordinary wages. In 2023, Treasury researchers estimate that tax break will cost the country $146 billion, or nine times more than the entire annual TANF budget. And who are the major beneficiaries of those tax breaks? White families, who make up 67 percent of the population but claim 92 percent of the benefits. And these aren’t just white families. They’re rich white families. The Treasury report doesn’t mention it, but 75 percent of all long-term capital gains were reported by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans in 2019. (For a good explanation of how this works, read this piece by Mother Jones editor Mike Mechanic, author of Jackpot: How the Super Rich Really Live and How Their Wealth Harms Us All.)

By far the biggest tax expenditure is the exemption for employer-provided health insurance, which will cost the country $225 billion this year. Eighty-two percent of those benefits will accrue to white people. See a pattern? You don’t have to be a woke SJW to see the injustice here. 

 

Stephanie Mencimer

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