Bipartisan tax policy breakthroughs are rare in Washington these days. So as the Senate considers the bipartisan tax bill to invest in 16 million children from low-income families eligible for the child tax credit (CTC), many hesitate to question what is being offered in exchange: a series of tax breaks for the country’s largest corporations. However, history shows that there are real costs to cutting taxes for the country’s most powerful corporations in exchange for child investments. While the profound benefits of improving the CTC may be worth it, this deal is not a “win-win.”
One simple yet effective measure of judging any tax deal is to ask who benefits. The deal would undoubtedly directly benefit millions of children and their families by enhancing the CTC. Raising kids in America is expensive. Oftentimes, families, especially those who may be low-income, face the impossible trade-off between putting food on their table, paying rent, and paying for childcare. An expanded CTC would provide children—and their families—modest but meaningful financial relief. In the first year alone, the proposed expanded CTC could lift an estimated 400,000 children above the poverty line. And importantly, the CTC’s benefits extend beyond just families with children. Not only does alleviating child poverty make economic sense but recent research also shows that we all affirmatively benefit from the longer-term economic and fiscal returns of investing in the next generation.
The other side of this proposed tax deal however—namely extending some specific corporate tax provisions put in place by the Trump tax cuts—would undoubtedly and almost exclusively benefit just a small slice of the most profitable corporations and their shareholders.
In theory, extending the ability of companies to quickly deduct capital expenditures and interest payments, and expense research spending is supposed to encourage more investment and more innovation—the building blocks of economic prosperity. Yet, today’s actual economy is not a theoretical exercise. The reality about corporate America today is that the top 10 percent of public American corporations now capture 92 percent of pre-tax profits, up from 73 percent in the early 1970s. Smaller and most medium-sized public businesses in contrast operate on losses, and therefore pay no federal income tax.
That’s the main reason why the central business provisions in the deal relating to expensing investment decisions and research costs benefit only the most profitable corporations and their shareholders. Permitting corporations to expense research and investment costs primarily benefits those corporations who already have a lot of income. It does not benefit the most innovative, path-breaking startups which do not yet have enough profits in the early years to benefit from expensing. More broadly, corporate leaders respond much less to the ability to immediately expense investment decisions than previously thought, and there is no evidence that expensing increases capital investment, especially if made retroactive. Loosening the limits on deductions for interest payments just encourages businesses to get into debt, making them vulnerable to economic shocks and private equity takeovers.
In contrast to the almost universal benefits of improving the Child Tax Credit, the corporate tax provisions of this deal look more like targeted relief for the most profitable corporations and wealthiest shareholders who need it least.
Perhaps this steep inequity in who benefits from this tax deal is just the price of making sausage in 2024. But the history of taxing business in the U.S. shows that truly transformative investments in the wellbeing of children and families won’t come from triangulating the lowest common denominator of cutting corporate taxes. Instead, we’ll need to step back to reimagine for what and for whom the corporate income tax exists.
For the past half-century, U.S. corporate tax debates have fallen into a familiar pattern. One side argues that corporate taxation provides a needed revenue base to invest in programs which help children and families. The other side assumes—incorrectly it turns out—that taxing corporate income takes money away from investment, and therefore cutting corporate taxes would spur economic growth, job creation, and thus the ability of families to care for themselves and their children. The supremacy of this “cut-to-grow” mentality has blinded us to a more holistic and historically grounded approach to taxing corporations which could actively help grow the economy for all.
From the early 20th century through the 1960s, the predominant narrative on corporate tax reform was that it should be levied to both raise revenue and structure markets in ways which would level the playing field for all economic actors. As such, for much of this history, the federal corporate tax was levied at significantly steeper, graduated rates than today’s flat rate of 21percent and it was designed to ensure that wealthy shareholders couldn’t escape taxation and hoard capital and political power at the expense of American families and their children.
That changed in the 1970s and 1980s, when a “cut-to-grow” mythos took root in tax policymaking that has resulted in dramatic economic returns to businesses and the wealthy, while undercutting the government’s ability to fund and service the public-interest programs on which low-income families depend. The past four decades of “death by a thousand cuts” corporate tax policy also helped fuel the rise of the dominant, incumbent ‘superstar’ corporations we all know today. The concentration of economic control in a few hundred corporations, in turn, meant working families saw higher prices, inferior products, lower wages, less innovation and productivity and compromised supply chains.
Ultimately, children do well when the fruits of the economy are widely shared, and everyone has a chance to succeed. The child tax credits debated this week are unambiguously beneficial. But we would do well to reconsider how we arrived in a political environment that trades child wellbeing policy for big business interests. Looking ahead at the possibility of a more comprehensive tax reform in 2025 when much of the rest of the Trump tax cuts expire, we should learn lessons from the past to leverage the corporate tax as a tool to provide support, raise revenue, and rebalance power in the economy in favor of consumers and working families.
Niko Lusiani, Emily DiVito, and Reuven Avi-Yonah are researchers on corporate power and authors of a new Roosevelt Institute report on taxation and child wellbeing.
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