Compassionate Conservatism? 4 Popular Safety-Net Programs Tea Party Republicans Have Turned Against in the Age of Obama
Continued from previous page
The Earned Income Tax Credit
Conservatives love shaking their heads in righteous consternation and asking: “Did you know that only 53 percent of Americans pay taxes?” They’ve even got a Tumblr about it.
This juicy little sound bite ignores several key points. First, those 47 percent of people who “don’t pay taxes” actually just don’t owe any federal income taxes, largely because they don’t have much income. Second, they do pay state, local, sales, payroll, gasoline, and other excise taxes -- federal income taxes made up just 22.7 percent of all taxes paid in this country last year. (Note that rich people get to avoid the vast majority of their payroll taxes, which represent about the same share of the total as federal income taxes.) Third, the reason many of the so-called 47 percent don’t pay income taxes is because of the earned income tax credit (EITC), a policy instituted in the 1970s as a more conservative way to boost working-class incomes than the minimum wage.
The EITC essentially rewards parents who work hard for low pay with a break on their incomes taxes and, in many cases, a refund. It was expanded and greatly strengthened under Ronald Reagan’s Tax Reform Act of 1986, which indexed it to inflation so the benefit wouldn’t stagnate. He declared the tax program “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job-creation measure to come out of Congress.” To a lesser degree George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush beefed the EITC up too, while the latter also allowed bipartisan moderates to expand access to the child tax credit to low-income people too.
“It’s a real blend of conservative and liberal values,” says Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “If you talk to average people, this is one that Americans are generally for: a big catch for [American attitudes towards social programs] is that the person on the receiving end is doing their best and working hard. [By that logic], the earned income tax credit is something conservatives should like.”
That’s not the way today’s GOP sees it. The “We are the 53 Percent” nonsense is an implicit attack on the earned income tax credit. But there have been plenty of explicit attacks as well from Senator John Cornyn, R-Tex., to conservative Fox News anchors who deride it as “a form of welfare income redistribution.” More substantively, Republican state politicians are actively attempting to slash the program and Tea Party icon and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has promised to “do away with EITC,” if she is elected.
The Democratic majority in the Senate and President Obama’s veto pen have defeated many of the worst of these reactionary excesses. But what happens if, and when, the Republicans have a more powerful position in Washington, D.C.? So much for compassionate conservatism.
Jake Blumgart is a researcher for the Cry Wolf Project and a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.