Negative income tax
|An aspect of fiscal policy|
In economics, a negative income tax (NIT) is a progressive income tax system where people earning below a certain amount receive supplemental pay from the government instead of paying taxes to the government.
Such a system has been discussed by economists but never fully implemented. It was described by British politician Juliet Rhys-Williams in the 1940s and later by United States free-market economist Milton Friedman.
In a negative income tax system, people earning a certain income level would owe no taxes; those earning more than that would pay a proportion of their income above that level; and those below that level would receive a payment of a proportion of their shortfall, which is the amount their income falls below that level.
A negative income tax is intended to create a single system that would not only pay for government, but would also fulfill the social goal of making sure that there was a minimum level of income for all. It is theorized that, with an NIT, the need for minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, social security programs and other government assistance programs could be eliminated, thus reducing the administrative effort and cost to a fraction of what it is under the current system, as well as eliminating the perverse incentives created by these overlapping aid programs, e.g. when a minimum wage worker who earns a little more nets out with less income because they are newly ineligible for aid. Theoretically, the worker would then be stuck in a welfare trap and would have no incentive to seek higher wages.
A NIT does not disrupt low-wage markets, whereas a minimum wage law makes certain that people whose skills are not sufficient to justify that kind of wage will go unemployed. A NIT would therefore increase the availability of cheap labor, which would enable businesses to do domestically some of the work which they would otherwise have to outsource to other countries.
A NIT could reduce administrative overhead, since the large bureaucracies responsible for administering taxation and welfare systems, with the multitude of rules, thresholds and different applications required, could be greatly reduced or eliminated. The savings from this could then be returned to the people through spending on different government activities, via tax cuts, or any array of different ways.
Various different models of negative income tax have been proposed.
One model was proposed by Milton Friedman. In this version, a specified proportion of unused deductions or allowances would be refunded to the taxpayer. If, for a family of four the amount of allowances came out to $10,000, and the subsidy rate was 50%, and the family earned $6,000, the family would receive $2,000, because it left $4,000 of allowances unused, and therefore qualifies for $2,000, half that amount. Friedman feared that subsidy rates any higher would lessen the incentive to obtain employment. He also warned that the negative income tax, as an addition to the "ragbag" of welfare and assistance programs, would only worsen the problem of bureaucracy and waste. Instead, he argued, the negative income tax should immediately replace all other welfare and assistance programs on the way to a completely laissez-faire society where all welfare is privately administered. The negative income tax has come up in one form or another in Congress, but Friedman eventually opposed it because it came packaged with other undesirable elements antithetical to the efficacy of the negative income tax. Friedman preferred to have no income tax at all, but said he did not think it was politically feasible at that time to eliminate it, so he suggested this as a less harmful income tax scheme.
Flat tax with negative income tax
The effort for reporting and supervision can be significantly reduced by combining basic income with flat income tax. The relationship between gross and net income for individuals can be adjusted to correspond roughly to current relationship at all income levels, implying that income tax is effectively progressive. A flat rate income taxation with tax exemption implements a negative income tax as well as maintaining an actual tax rate progression at extremely low administrative cost. This is achieved by paying a tax on the tax exemption to all taxpayers, e.g. in monthly payments. The tax on the tax exemption is computed by applying the nominal flat tax rate to the exemption. The tax on the income is drawn directly from the source, e.g. from an employer. The tax on income is computed by applying the nominal flat tax rate to the income.
This simple method results in an effective progressive rate taxation (although the tax rate for the taxes drawn at the source is flat) which is positive once the income exceeds the tax exemption. If, however, the income is less than the tax exemption, the effective progressive rate actually becomes negative without any involvement by any tax authority. As for the positive progression, only very high incomes would lead to an actual tax rate which is close to the nominal flat tax rate.
The tax on tax exemption also can be understood as a tax credit, which is paid back once an income has reached the level of the tax exemption. This level marks the point where paid taxes and the tax credit are equal. Above that point the state earns taxes from the taxpayer. Below that point the state pays taxes to the taxpayer.
- The income tax rate is 50%.
- The tax exemption is $30,000.
- The subsidy rate is 50% and equal to the income tax rate.
Under this scheme:
- A person earning $0 would receive $15,000 from the government.
- A person earning $25,000 would receive $2,500 from the government.
- A person earning $30,000 would neither receive any money nor pay any tax.
- A person earning $50,000 would pay a tax of $10,000.
- A person earning $100,000 would pay a tax of $35,000.
Flat tax implementations without the provision of a negative income tax actually need an additional effort in order to avoid negative taxation. For such a tax, the exemption only can be paid after knowing the earned income. Flat tax implementations with negative income tax allow the payment or crediting of the income tax at any interval, independent of the amount of the actual income.
While the notion has long been popular in some circles, its implementation has never been politically feasible. This is partly because of the very complex and entrenched nature of most countries' current tax laws: they would have to be rewritten under any NIT system. However, some countries have seen the introduction of refundable (or non-wastable) tax credits which can be paid even when there is no tax liability to be offset, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit in the United States and working tax credit in the UK. Under President Richard Nixon, a NIT proposal almost made it through Congress.
From 1968 to 1982, the US and Canadian governments conducted a total of five negative income tax experiments. They were the first major social science experiments in the world. The first experiment was the New Jersey Income Maintenance Experiment, proposed by MIT Economics graduate student Heather Ross in 1967 in a proposal to the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. The four experiments were in:
- The New Jersey Income Maintenance Experiment: Trenton, Passaic, Paterson, and Jersey City, New Jersey with Scranton, Pennsylvania added to increase the number of white families, 1968–1972 (1357 families)
- The Rural Income Maintenance Experiment: Rural areas in Iowa and North Carolina, 1969–1973 (809 families)
- Gary, Indiana, 1971–1974 (1800 families)
- Seattle (SIME) and Denver (DIME), 1971–1982 (4800 families)
- Manitoba, Canada ("Mincome"), 1974-1979
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.— from the chapter titled "Where We Are Going"
A common criticism is that the NIT might reduce the incentive to work, since recipients of the NIT would receive a guaranteed minimum wage equal to the government payment in the absence of employment. A series of studies in the United States beginning in 1968 attempted to test for effects on work incentives. Jodie Allen summarizes the key studies:
The Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which analyzed the SIME/DIME findings, found stronger work disincentive effects, ranging from an average 9 percent work reduction for husbands to an average 18 percent reduction for wives. This was not as scary as some NIT opponents had predicted. But it was large enough to suggest that as much as 50 to 60 percent of the transfers paid to two-parent families under a NIT might go to replace lost earnings. They also found an unexpected result: instead of promoting family stability (the presumed result of extending benefits to two-parent working families on an equal basis), the NITs seemed to increase family breakup.
The link between NIT and divorce was later determined to be due to a statistical error. 
Another criticism comes from the relative expense of the establishment of such a tax. According to a research project conducted by Rutgers University in 2002, a program of targeted job creation would produce similar wealth redistribution with significantly less cost.
- Citizen's dividend
- Effective marginal tax rate
- Poverty in the United States
- Tax choice
- Basic Income
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