Tax Commission Co-chairs Right to Prioritize Analysis of Tax Expenditures

Source: C. Eugene Steuerle, Robert Friedman, Urban Institute, November 29, 2010

The American Dream has long meant the opportunity to buy a home, save for retirement, go to college, start a business and build an economic future for oneself and one’s family. Small wonder that the federal government plans to spend $4 trillion during the coming decade to try to help us invest in our future. But, as noted by the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, we’re pursuing this shared dream in ways that have become wasteful, regressive and ineffective. We recommend rebalancing our budget. We could cut the national debt by $500 billion or more over a decade, provide more effective subsidies for middle- and low-income families, boost private saving and reduce the demands on our welfare system. We could be on our way to a true “save and invest” economy.

First, some numbers. In 2009, the federal government spent nearly $400 billion to encourage saving and investing by American families, mostly through the tax code. A recent report, Upside Down: The $400 Billion Federal Asset-Building Budget, from CFED and the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that current subsidies range from $95,000 for the top 1 percent of households to less than $5 for those at the bottom. Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center research shows that many subsidies rise in value as wealth and tax rates increase. That basically insures that the poorest fifth of the population won’t even qualify for many of them.

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