The tax cut bill now getting ready for a Senate vote — complicated by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s finding that the bill will still add to the deficit and grow the economy slower than Republicans had hoped — is supposed to provide “broad relief” to companies and families.
The nonpartisan JCT has also said “every tax bracket” would pay less. Its proponents, including recent supporter Sen. John McCain, have claimed that the bill would “directly benefit all Americans.” Critics, meanwhile, point to the millions of low- and middle-income families whose tax cut would be modest and whose taxes would rise in 10 years.
But averages obscure the reality that each family’s tax situation is unique. Families earning the same dollar amounts can pay vastly different income tax rates, depending on the particulars of their family and where their income comes from.
The New York Times analyzed how the bill would play out for a wide range of taxpayers classified as middle class — those earning roughly between $40,000 and $125,000 per year — and found some common themes. People with children would benefit under the proposed bill, but single earners would not. Higher earners would benefit more. And when the tax rate reductions expire, they would return to their current, much higher, levels.
Here’s a look at how five hypothetical households would fare if the proposed Senate bill became law in its current state. These examples are simplified, and of course don’t include changes the bill will likely go through as it’s being debated and then — if passed by the Senate — as it goes through the reconciliation process with the House. Nor do they include the effects of payroll taxes — those paid on the first $118,000 of income to fund Medicare and Social Security.
Married with children
Let’s take a couple that fits the archetypal idea of “middle class.” Maya and John are married, have two children and two jobs, earning a combined $71,000 — the US median for a family. Like about two-thirds of taxpayers, they don’t itemize but take the standard deduction. Let’s also assume they contribute a tenth of their joint income to a tax-deferred 401(k) plan run by their employer.
Under current law, Maya and John would pay $3,250 a year in federal taxes. That’s after the standard deduction and personal exemptions for themselves and their dependents bring their taxable income down to $35,000; they also benefit from the child tax credit. That figure also doesn’t include payroll taxes that are taken out of their paychecks.
The Senate’s tax plan would lower the tax bracket they’re in from 15 percent to 12 percent and double the child tax credit, reducing their federal liability to just $788. So all other things being equal, the family would save $2,462 taxes under the Senate’s proposal.
Married with children, in New Jersey
But in slightly different circumstances, that couple could make out much worse. Let’s assume Maya and John are homeowners. Some years ago, after living frugally and with some help from generous parents, they were able to buy a $600,000 house in New Jersey. Because they are so thrifty and have excellent credit, they qualified for a very low down payment.
However, because they live in New Jersey, they pay some of the nation’s highest property taxes. Let’s also assume that instead of two children, they have one, with the plans to have a second when their finances allow it.
Under current tax law, the couple can deduct their state, local and property taxes, as well as the substantial interest they pay on their mortgage, bringing their taxable income to the lowest tax bracket. After accounting for the child tax credit, they would owe just $608 to the federal government in income tax.
Under the Senate plan, Maya and John wouldn’t be able to deduct the full value of the mortgage interest they pay, since only the first $500,000 of the mortgage would be eligible, and they couldn’t take off any of their property taxes, which removes $13,000 from their taxable income under current law. They could save slightly more by taking the increased standard deduction ($24,000 under the Senate plan) than they would by itemizing.
But still, they would pay $2,624 in federal income taxes, even with the increased credit for their one child — $2,000 more than they do currently.
Solo successful lawyer
David, who lives alone, is a very successful lawyer earning $280,000 a year from his practice. Even though he’s a business owner and takes that money in the form of a profit distribution, rather than a salary, it’s what’s known as “pass through” income and is taxed at personal income rates.
David falls into a group of people who are likely to itemize — very high earners — but if he chose to be very generous with the government, take a standard deduction and not use any tax advantages to shield his income, he would pay around $72,000 in federal income taxes on the full amount.
The Senate tax plan allows pass-through businesses to deduct 20 percent of their income, but that doesn’t apply to service businesses, such as accountants and lawyers. David would need to pay regular income taxes on his profits if he kept a pass-through business structure. However, if he restructured the business slightly differently, he could instead pay the corporate tax rate of 20 percent, reducing his tax bill to $55,000.
Currently about 80 percent of US businesses are pass-throughs, not corporations, but that could change with the new tax rates. Economists have predicted that having a different set of tax rates for individuals and businesses would create incentives for higher-income business owners like David to restructure to take advantage of the lowest rates.
“The issues is, one set of businesses is taxed at the corporate tax rate, another set at the individual rate,” Roberton Williams, of the Tax Policy Center, previously told MoneyWatch. “If you have one undercutting the other, you will have this shift happen.”
While many provisions of the tax bill expire in 2025, the corporate tax cuts don’t — meaning David could benefit from his lower tax rate for the rest of his working life.
A graduate student
While professionals can expect to do well under the tax bill, young people on the way to becoming professionals can’t. That’s because it changes the treatment of graduate student loans.
Currently, a student who attends graduate school on a scholarship and earns $15,000 from a research stipend pays taxes only on the $15,000 of income. With exemptions, federal income taxes would be about $500.
But under the Senate plan, the student would pay taxes not only on the stipend but also on the $55,000 of tuition that’s waived. She’s treated the same way as Maya and John, in the first example, but without the benefits of a child credit, and would pay about $8,730 in federal income tax.
And if she suddenly has to take out loans to cover the cost of her education, the interest on those loans, once she start repaying them, won’t be deductible either under the Senate plan.
A golden age couple
Finally, let’s consider Mark and James, both 63 and living in Florida. They’ve paid off their mortgage, and they’re healthy and active. They intend to retire in several years, but in the meantime both work part-time, earning $57,000. Because they live in Florida, they aren’t taxed on the state level. Instead, they pay about $4,497 only in federal income taxes. Under the proposed Senate plan, they would pay $3,579 — $918 less.
As part-time workers, however, the couple purchase their own health insurance, and they would pay much more for it if the Senate plan became law. That’s because the bill eliminates the penalty that individuals who don’t have health insurance have to pay. Without such a penalty, millions of relatively healthy people would drop coverage, causing prices to rise for everyone else to rise.
Still, there’s a silver lining for Mark and James. If their higher health care costs rise beyond 10 percent of their income — more than $5,700 — a recent change to the Senate plan allows them to deduct those costs, too.