If We Give Everybody Cash, Let’s Tax It

Giving people cash is a great way to soften COVID-19’s economic blow. But it’s sparked a classic debate. Should the federal government give money to everyone? Or target it to people with low incomes?

Targeting has the potential to deliver the biggest benefit per dollar spent. But eligibility requirements add complexity and will inevitably screen out some people who need help. Universality is simpler and recognizes that we are all in this together.

Happily, we can combine the best features of both approaches: Let’s give cash to everyone, and then tax it later. By distributing money today, we get the speed and inclusiveness of universality. By taxing it later, we can recapture some of the benefits from those who needed them least.

One approach is simply to tax the assistance just like any other income. A person with little income this year would keep the full government payment of, say, $1,000. But a billionaire in California would net only $500. At tax time next year, Uncle Sam would get $370 back and California would get $130. The billionaire would receive half as much as the person with little income. And states with income taxes would get a much-needed boost in revenues.

Ben Ritz of the Progressive Policy Institute has proposed another approach: structuring the money as a pre-paid tax credit and then clawing back some of it at tax time. The clawback system could be designed to accomplish any distributional and fiscal goal you want. For example, you might phase out the credit entirely for folks earning more than $150,000. Another possibility would be to link the credit amount to some measure of income loss, not just income level, by comparing the income changes across tax years.

Any of these approaches would reduce the fiscal cost of the cash payments and thus, for the same overall cost, allow them to be bigger for those who get them. Taxing the payments as income, for example, might create a 11 percent offset in new federal revenues. (That figure is based on a report Elaine Maag and I did on carbon dividends, an idea for universal payments linked to a carbon tax.) A taxable payment of $1,125 would then have the about same net fiscal cost as an untaxed $1,000 payment. Under Ritz’s proposal, a more aggressive clawback approach could allow even bigger payments for the same overall cost.

The payments described here should not be treated as income in determining eligibility and benefits in safety net programs. They should be treated as income if we were enacting universal payments in normal times. But times are decidedly not normal. There is no reason for these temporary payments to reduce the efficacy of the existing safety net.

I favor targeting assistance to people with low incomes or sudden income loss if it’s easy to do so. There’s clearly more bang per buck in directing aid to those who likely need it most. Australia has already enacted one program along those lines. But if we go with universal payments, let’s make the payments taxable.

Economic Policy in the Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 poses a severe threat not only to public health but also to the overall US economy. The nation’s policy response should focus on four basic strategies.

First, we should embrace those economic losses that protect health. The steps needed to combat the coronavirus will inevitably reduce economic activity. We want risky activities to stop. Social distancing is in. Gatherings are out. Reducing economic activity will reduce the overall size of the economy. But we all know Gross Domestic Product is not a measure of social wellbeing. That’s especially true today.

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Second, we should help people get through this sudden financial shock. Millions of workers will see their incomes fall from reduced work hours, furloughs, and layoffs. Restaurants, bars, and many other small businesses will see their revenues crater.

Expanding existing safety net programs—as the House-passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act does for unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and food assistance—is a good start. So is supporting paid sick leave. But those programs miss many people.

That’s why we are seeing new proposals to get money out the door quickly. Making direct payments to households—recently proposed by Jason Furman (former economic advisor to President Obama), Greg Mankiw (former advisor to President Bush), and now Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT)—is one approach. Targeting payments to low income households, as Australia is doing, is another. Giving money to employers who keep workers on their payrolls is a third. Whichever approach we take, a priority is getting support out quickly to soften what may be an unprecedented loss in income.

Third, we should protect our economy’s productive capacity so it can rebound once the virus risk recedes. COVID-19 shouldn’t destroy otherwise healthy businesses and nonprofits.

The Federal Reserve will play a role by ensuring smooth functioning of credit markets. Adding liquidity to Treasury markets, as the Fed is doing, is a good step. It may well take more steps in the days ahead. But that won’t be enough.

Congress and President Trump should help fundamentally healthy firms that are facing sudden cash flow stress and lack good financing options. Lending to small businesses is a natural first step. Trump has proposed expanding lending authority by the Small Business Administration. Other nations have announced similarly-focused programs. The United Kingdom, for example, has introduced new business interruption loans.

What to do for larger businesses is a harder question. Many large businesses do have private financing options. Or would if they had managed their balance sheets better. Expect spirited debate about where to draw the line between good and bad bailouts and, for that matter, about what constitutes a bailout. (I’ll have more to say about that in another post.)

Fourth, we should make full use of our economy’s productive capacity once the virus recedes. Rebounding supply will help only if demand keeps up.

The Fed has taken a first step to support demand by cutting its target interest rate to effectively zero and expanding its purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. Those steps will soften the decline in consumer and business spending.

Whether that will be enough is anyone’s guess. With effective actions now, the economy may rebound quickly once the virus threat abates. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that economic activity will lag. If that happens, fiscal policy can help boost demand. The actions we take now to provide income support will help and could be continued. We also have the usual arsenal of tax (e.g., lowering payroll taxes) and spending (e.g., aid to states) options.

In recent days, America has made great strides in the first strategy, embracing the economic losses necessary to fight the virus. In coming days, the priority will shift to the next two, helping people survive the resulting sudden income loss and defending our productive capacity so it can rebound quickly. Policymakers may also take initial steps to support demand to make full use of that capacity. But the ultimate scope of those efforts will need to track the still-unknown size of the longer-term challenge.