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President Trump's disingenuous middle-class tax cut pitch

Steven Mnuchin Sworn In As Treasury Secretary
Trump with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

One of President Trump's main points at his first address to Congress, according to a sheet of talking points distributed to the press before the event, is a demand that "The middle class must get tax relief."

This isn’t too surprising; Trump has been hitting this line since the campaign, and reiterated it again and again upon taking office. “We are going to be cutting taxes massively for both the middle class and for companies,” he said shortly after being inaugurated; he repeated that line in his February address to the Conservative Political Action Conference. His Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, has promised “the most significant middle-income tax cut since Reagan.”

There’s just one problem: Neither Trump’s tax plan (the one from the campaign; he hasn’t offered a new one as president) nor the Better Way plan from House Republicans, which could play just as an important role in shaping the tax reforms that Congress ultimately passes, is designed to primarily help the middle class. Only 6.6 percent of the cost of Trump's plan goes to cuts for the middle fifth of taxpayers, households making between $48,400 and $84,300 a year, according to the Tax Policy Center. By contrast, a whopping 47.3 percent goes to the top 1 percent, and nearly a quarter goes to the top 0.1 percent, all of whom make over $3.75 million a year.

To make matters worst, many middle-class families would actually see a tax hike under Trump’s campaign plan, as NYU professor Lily Batchelder has found. That’s because Trump wants to increase the bottom tax bracket from 10 percent to 12 percent, eliminate head-of-household filing status for single parents and other caregivers, and get rid of personal exemptions.

Paul Ryan and other House Republicans’ A Better Way plan is, if anything, worse on this score. While it doesn’t hurt certain middle-class families the same way that Trump’s plan does, it manages to be even more lopsidedly pro-rich. While Trump would offer the middle class a roughly $1,000 annual tax cut, on average, Ryan would give them $260 a year in the first decade and only $60 in the second. And 76.1 percent of the plan’s cost goes to cuts for the top 1 percent; in the second decade, that rises to an astonishing 99.6 percent, with 61 percent going to the top 0.1 percent. Indeed, by then the plan starts modestly increasing taxes on the upper middle class, to pay for bigger cuts for the ultra rich.

Of course, both Ryan and Trump like to defend their plans by arguing they’d create economic growth effects large enough to help the middle class much more. But even the right-leaning Tax Foundation, which tends to conclude that tax cuts help economic growth much more than other analysts think, finds that the middle class gains substantially less under both Trump and Ryan’s plans than does the top 1 percent. Even in the very best-case scenario, these are not plans designed to help the middle class.

Republican tax cut plans need to be sold as middle-class benefits — and that’ll be tough this time around

Dick Cheney, tax refund check in 2001
Vice President Dick Cheney, then-Sen. Rick Santorum, and other Republican Congress members hold up their refund checks in 2001.
Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

People forget this, but the George W. Bush tax cuts of 2001 were sold primarily as tax relief to the middle class, despite providing significantly greater tax relief to the rich. That was a key factor in getting 12 Democrats in the Senate and 28 Democrats in the House to vote for the bill, and it was crucial to messaging around the bill. The law included a provision sending out $300 to $600 refund checks to every person who paid income taxes for the year 2000, so middle-class taxpaying voters would see it as tax relief aimed at them rather than the upper classes.

Trump faces a very different task in arguing for his tax cuts than Bush did. Bush inherited a sizable and growing budget surplus, and his pitch was that the money should be returned to them through rate cuts. Trump, by contrast, takes office with a substantial deficit, which is set to gradually grow over the coming years.

And yet Trump proposed tax cuts even larger than Bush’s. According to initial Congressional Budget Office/Joint Committee on Taxation estimates, Bush’s major tax cuts reduced revenue by about $1.76 trillion over 10 years, or about 11.4 percent of GDP in 2011. The Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump's plan would reduce revenue by $6.15 trillion, or 26.2 percent of GDP. Either way, it's more than double the size of Bush's cuts, offered at a time of much larger deficits.

Because of that, Trump’s cuts are likely to have to be cut back substantially, closer to the level of Ryan’s. Ryan and House Republicans' plan "only" costs $3.7 trillion, or 13.5 percent of GDP, over 10 years. That’s only a little bigger than Bush’s tax cut. It’d likely need to be cut back further, but it’s in any case closer to the kind of cut that Congress could ultimately pass than Trump’s plan.

Ryan's plan offers less to the typical middle-class taxpayer than Trump's does. The typical cut in the first year for the middle quintile is $260. Those big $600 checks that the Bush administration was sending out to everyone would be impossible under Ryan’s plan, or at the very least significantly smaller for most people.

The problem gets more severe if Trump’s plan to eliminate head-of-household filing status is introduced to the Ryan proposal. That would mean a number of middle-class families would pay more taxes. Whereas Bush was able to offer every taxpaying household a refund, Trump would leave millions out.

One way Trump has tried to overcome this problem is by adding a child care tax deduction to his plan. But because this benefit only applies to people with a positive tax liability, the child care provisions in Trump’s plan actually make it more regressive, as Batchelder, Elaine Maag, Chye-Ching Huang, and Emily Horton note in a new Tax Policy Center paper:

Tax incidence of Trump’s child care plan Tax Policy Center

The “Mnuchin rule” means Trump has given himself an impossible task on taxes

Back in November, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin went one step further than his boss and promised, “Any reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.”

Sit back and think about that for a second. The Trump administration wants to eliminate a 3.8 percent tax on rich people’s investment income, and a 0.9 percent tax on their wages, implemented as part of Obamacare. It also wants to cut the income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent. Mnuchin is promising that he’ll crack down on deductions for state and local taxes, mortgage interest, charitable donations, and more by so much that rich people won’t actually get a tax cut.

But as NYU Law’s David Kamin notes, this plan is also literally impossible. In a post for the journal Democracy, Kamin estimated how much of a tax break the top 1 percent would get from each tax cut proposal issued by the Trump campaign, plus how much they get from each tax deduction.

David Kamin’s estimates of how Mnuchin’s rule could be lived up to David Kamin for Democracy Journal

His conclusion is that even if you completely eliminate every itemized deduction — the state and local deduction, the charitable deduction, mortgage interest, everything — you'll only raise rich people's taxes by half as much as you'd need to to keep Mnuchin's promise. And that's before taking into account the big corporate tax rate cuts Trump and House Republicans also want, and which will largely benefit shareholders, who tend to be very wealthy.

Certainly, the actual plans that Trump and House Republicans have offered flagrantly violate the Mnuchin rule, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Aviva Aron-Dine and Jacob Leibenluft note.

It’s kind of hard to understand why Mnuchin would make such a sweeping, impossible promise. But now that he has, this is the standard by which all Republican tax proposals are going to be judged. And you can expect them all to fall far, far short.