Presidential candidate Donald Trump today announced a child-care tax break that offers nothing to the lowest-income, most vulnerable families, despite his claims to the contrary.
During a speech today in which he revealed the plan among other economic proposals, Trump said his economic policies are designed “especially for those who have the very least.” But his proposed child-care tax break is incredibly light on details and, to the extent that it can be analyzed, it appears it will offer poor and even some middle- and upper-income families nothing.
Let’s start with those near (or below) the poverty line. The federal income tax is already designed to exempt most poor families. This doesn’t mean these families pay no taxes, of course—far from it. But it does mean that families earning too little to pay federal income taxes—including virtually all those living below the poverty line—can gain nothing at all from Trump’s plan to exclude child care expenses from taxable income.
Middle- and upper-income families are already eligible for a federal tax credit for dependent care expenses. The plan could benefit these families only if this new tax break is in addition to the existing credit. Again, the plan offers no clarity on this point. If the plan’s intent is to allow families to “double dip” by both excluding their child care from income taxation, and then taking a credit for the same expenses, it would offer a substantial—and likely regressive—income tax break for better-off families. If, however, the child care credit would be replaced with the deduction, then middle- and upper-income taxpayers could potentially get less help.
From a fairness perspective, Trump’s new exclusion would likely flip the existing tax break on its head. Right now, lower-income families can claim a credit for up to 35 percent of their expenses (up to a capped amount), and that percentage gradually drops to 20 percent for better-off Americans. By contrast, income tax exclusions of the sort Trump has proposed would pay for a higher percentage of child care expenses for high income families, since the tax savings would depend on their marginal income tax rate.
What makes this especially egregious is that this is an area where there is room to improve the tax system. Child care expenses can be a daunting financial burden for low-and moderate-income families. Simply making the federal credit refundable would help millions of families with children. By choosing to create a new tax break that abandons the best features of the current child-care tax break rather than fixing its problems, Trump has missed an opportunity to truly help “those who have the very least,” as he claims he wants to do.