What if the charitable deduction were larger?

Nov 3 JDN 2458791

Right now, the charitable tax deduction is really not all that significant. It makes donating to charity cheaper, but you still always end up with less money after donating than you had before. It might cause you to donate more than you otherwise would have, but you’ll still only give to a charity you already care about.

This is because the tax deduction applies to your income, rather than your taxes directly. So if you make $100,000 and donate $10,000, you pay taxes as if your income were $90,000. Say your tax rate is 25%; then you go from paying $25,000 and keeping $75,000 to paying $22,500 and keeping $67,500. The more you donate, the less money you will have to keep.

Many people don’t seem to understand this; they seem to think that rich people can actually get richer by donating to charity. That can’t be done in our current tax system, or at least not legally. (There are fraudulent ways to do so; but there are fraudulent ways to do lots of things.) Part of the confusion may be related to the fact that people don’t seem to understand how tax brackets work; they worry about being “pushed into a higher tax bracket” as though this could somehow reduce their after-tax income, but that doesn’t happen. That isn’t how tax brackets work.

Some welfare programs work that way—for instance, seeing your income rise high enough to lose Medicaid eligibility can be bad enough that you would prefer to have less income—but taxes themselves do not.

The graph below shows the actual average tax rate (red) and marginal tax rate (purple) of the current US federal income tax:

Average_tax_rate
From that graph alone, you might think that going to a higher tax bracket could result in lower after-tax income. But the next graph, of before-tax (blue) and after-tax (green) income shows otherwise:

After_tax_income

All that tax deductions can do is shift you left on the green line. Without the tax deduction, you would instead shift left on the blue line, and then read off your position on the green line. Thus the tax deduction benefits you if you were already donating, but never leaves you richer than you would have been without donating at all.

For example, if you have an income of $700,000, you would pay $223,000 in taxes and keep $477,000 in after-tax income. If you instead donate $100,000, your adjusted gross income will be reduced to $600,000, you will only pay $186,000 in taxes, and you will keep $414,000 in after-tax income. If there were no tax deduction, you would still have to pay $223,000 in taxes, and your after-tax income would be only $377,000. So you do benefit from the tax deduction; but there is no amount of donation which will actually increase your after-tax income to above $477,000.

But we wouldn’t have to do it this way. We could instead apply the deduction as a tax credit, which would make the effect of the deduction far larger.

Several years back, Miles Kimball (an economist who formerly worked at Michigan, now at UC Boulder) proposed a quite clever change to the tax system:

My proposal is to raise marginal tax rates above about $75,000 per person–or $150,000 per couple–by 10% (a dime on every extra dollar), but offer a 100% tax credit for public contributions up to the entire amount of the tax surcharge.

Kimball’s argument for the policy is mainly that this would make a tax increase more palatable, by giving people more control over where their money goes. This is surely true, and a worthwhile endeavor.

But the even larger benefit might come from the increased charitable donations. If we limited the tax credit to particularly high-impact charities, we would increase the donations to those charities. Whereas in the current system you get the same deduction regardless of where you give your money, even though we know that some charities are literally hundreds of times as cost-effective as others.

In fact, we might not even want to limit the tax credit to that 10% surcharge. If people want to donate more than 10% of their income to high-impact charities, perhaps we should let them. This would mean that the federal deficit could actually increase under this policy, but if so, there would have to be so much money donated that we’d most likely end world hunger. That’s a tradeoff I’m quite willing to make.

In principle, we could even introduce a tax credit that is greater than 100%—say for instance you get a 120% donation for the top-rated charities. This is not mathematically inconsistent, though it is surely a very bad idea. In that case, it absolutely would be possible to end up with more money than you started with, and the richer you are, the more you could get. There would effectively be a positive return on charitable donations, with the money paid for from the government budget. Bill Gates for instance could pay $10 billion a year to charity and the government would not only pay for it, but also have to give him an extra $2 billion. So even for the best charities—which probably are actually a good deal more cost-effective than the US government—we should cap the tax credit at 100%.

Obvious choices for high-impact charities include UNICEF, the Red Cross, GiveDirectly, and the Malaria Consortium. We would need some sort of criteria to decide which charities should get the benefits; I’m thinking we could have some sort of panel of experts who rate charities based on their cost-effectiveness.

It wouldn’t have to be all-or-nothing, either; charities with good but not top ratings could get an increased deduction but not a 100% deduction. The expert panel could rate charities on a scale from 0 to 10, and then anything above 5 gets an (X-5)*10% tax credit.

In effect, the current policy says, “If you give to charity, you don’t have to pay taxes on the money you gave; but all of your other taxes still apply.” The new policy would say, “You can give to a top-impact charity instead of paying taxes.”

Americans hate taxes and already give a lot to charity, but most of those donations are to relatively ineffective charities. This policy could incentivize people to give more or at least give to better places, probably without hurting the government budget—and if it does hurt the government budget, the benefits will be well worth the cost.

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