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Tax credits: Just review them!

Posted November 11th, 2019 to Blog

Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be.

Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today.

The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018.

It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010.

Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024.

Basic RGB

While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.

  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.

As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before.

Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk.

The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits.

As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms.

Basic RGB

DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it.

In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need.

Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities.

Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel.

These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them?

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax credits: Just review them!

Posted November 11th, 2019 to Blog

Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be.

Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today.

The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018.

It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010.

Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024.

Basic RGB

While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.

  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.

As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before.

Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk.

The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits.

As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms.

Basic RGB

DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it.

In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need.

Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities.

Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel.

These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them?

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax credits: Just review them!

Posted November 11th, 2019 to Blog
Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be. Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today. The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018. It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010. Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024. Basic RGB While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.
  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.
As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before. Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk. The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits. As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms. Basic RGB DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it. In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need. Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities. Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel. These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them? MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Full-time work not enough

Posted October 18th, 2019 to Blog

Many Iowa families are unable to afford groceries, car maintenance or prescription refills, even though there is at least one full-time worker in the household. This presents a double bind, where Iowans are faced with limited economic opportunity despite their hard work.

The Iowa Policy Project’s 2019 Cost of Living report delves into these issues, finding work does not provide 1 in 5 Iowa working households enough to meet basic needs.

IPP constructs basic needs budgets that reflect a frugal standard of living — including food, health care, child care, household expenses, and transportation, then uses Census data to calculate the number of working households that make less than a wage that meets these basic requirements. These budgets leave no room for Netflix, student loan debt, vacations or eating at restaurants.

A majority of single-parent working households are unable to meet basic needs in Iowa. Our analysis shows that a wage of at nearly $20 per hour is needed just to afford basic expenses for single-parent families. This is consistent with research showing higher poverty rates among single-parent households, due to single incomes, child care expenses, generally lower educational attainment and low wages.

Evidence-based policymaking can address the reality that many working Iowans do not make enough to afford basic expenses. Policies that increase the minimum wage and adjust it to the cost of living, provide paid family leave, and boost Child Care Assistance will serve to ensure Iowans are able to just get by and hopefully get ahead.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Illusory and elusive economic strength

Posted August 29th, 2019 to Blog

This Labor Day we celebrate the successes of the labor movement and workers across Iowa. In that spirit, let’s look at how our economy is doing a decade after the Great Recession. Why doesn’t this feel like an economic recovery? And, isn’t it a bit late to call this a recovery?

Wages

In terms of wage growth, only high-wage earners (making $41.53 hourly) have seen meaningful wage growth over the past 10 years. We see disparities in Midwest median wages by gender and race: Women make $4 less per hour than male peers, and Latino and African American workers make $5 less per hour than their white peers. As we will demonstrate in an upcoming report, these disparities are driven by structural factors like discrimination before and after hiring and the loss of unionized manufacturing jobs.

 

 

 

Jobs

Job growth in Iowa has been slow this year compared to monthly averages from 2011 to 2014. A low unemployment rate shrouds the reality that many Iowans have low-paying jobs without benefits, with some cobbling together multiple part-time jobs. We are almost 40,000 jobs short (graph below) of what is needed for a full recovery from the last recession when considering population growth.

Family Security

Many working Iowa households are unable to meet basic needs despite having one or more full-time worker in the house. For example, IPP’s Cost of Living in Iowa analysis shows 6 in 10 single-parent working households are unable to make ends meet on their earnings alone. When companies aren’t paying enough, these households need public assistance (work supports) for food, housing and other necessary items.

Taxes

Iowa’s tax system is upside down with low-income Iowans paying a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than the richest Iowans. Large corporations can reduce their state corporate income tax to zero and even receive a refund through Iowa’s Research Activities Credit, with refunds — checks to companies that had more tax credits than they needed to pay their taxes — totaling $43.7 in 2018.

Public investments

Iowa state and local spending as a share of personal income has remained virtually unchanged over the past 12 years, contrary to standard political rhetoric at the Capitol. State K-12 funding has not kept up with costs of educating children. Public spending on private schools continues to rise. The Iowa private scholarship subsidy cap doubled in nine years.

The hard work of Iowans ought to be celebrated through public policy that raises wages along with worker productivity. This would allow wages to keep up with the cost of living. Better public policy would protect workers on the job, and ensure a dignified retirement.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Transparency: Corporations see; we don’t

Posted August 23rd, 2019 to Blog

The transparency on tax breaks that we get in Iowa is merely a tease for the taxpayer, and for the folks who lobby the Legislature each year for their causes.

It’s not enough to really let Iowans compare the choices being made on the spending of public dollars.

Advocates for public-focused priorities push lawmakers to apply an adequate share of the state budget to real responsibilities: to educate children and young adults, care for those without the means to do so on their own, and to keep their natural environment clean and their streets safe.

They have to make a case, that a public investment is not only needed, but a responsible use of funds that benefits the greater good in Iowa.

Some in the lobby can afford to advocate differently. In the “We Got Ours” huddles of big-business advocates in the lobby, the high stakes business of protecting their special breaks, and expanding them, is often only evident in the results.

A Cedar Rapids Gazette story shows we can expect more of this for an expensive and unaccountable program long on the books, the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC, unlike most tax credits, often does not affect taxes at all, but is a straight and automatic subsidy provided to huge companies that pay little — and often nothing — in Iowa corporate income taxes. (Remember that next time you hear their  complaints about Iowa’s corporate tax rates.)

Much of the story offered weak defenses of this program by the state’s economic development director, Debi Durham, and a spokesperson for the biggest recipient of these subsidies. Neither of those two people offered a shred of evidence of a public return on the $60-plus million annual cost.

You see, we know the cost, because there is an annual report that lawmakers required for this program. (The lobby fought that requirement hard when it passed in 2009.) But what the report cannot show is how much of the subsidized research would have happened anyway.

RAC table ... large claims
The Research Activities Credit was set up to help small, entrepreneurial businesses get going. Instead, as official state reports have shown, very large companies with RAC claims above $500,000 account for between 80 and 90 percent of the cost every year.

In a deliberative budget process, everything is on the table — funds available, a clear and understandable process to apportion them, and the public benefit evident. But when $300 million in business credits are on autopilot, a large chunk of those funds is taken off the table before the rest of us even get to sit down.

Peter Fisher, IPP’s research director, notes in The Gazette story that the system gives all the advantages to the corporations.

“The corporations hold all the cards, which is why I think states and localities routinely spend way more than they need to,” Fisher told The Gazette. “It’s like playing poker where the other players know your hand but you don’t know theirs.”

To learn more about the RAC, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership piece.

M

 

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

mikeowen@iowapoicyproject.org

Common good vs. common blame

Posted July 18th, 2019 to Blog

The Chris Godfrey case is only the latest example of a state leadership that — with no meaningful check on its authority — will do whatever it wants regardless of the consequences. They can, so they will.

And, for now, a jury has given the taxpayers of Iowa the consequences: a $1.5 million judgment against the state because of then-Governor Terry Branstad’s discrimination against a gay state official. Godfrey was state workers’ compensation commissioner when Branstad pressured him to resign, then cut his pay when Godfrey refused.

Branstad maintains the decision had nothing to do with Godfrey being gay. A jury disagreed. Either way, the totality of the case is disturbing.

When our state leaders defy a “common good” standard in making decisions, the ultimate pushback or price becomes a “common blame,” because the government actions represent us all, even if they do not serve us all.

We already see it in the issues surrounding Iowa’s poor water quality and the refusal of Iowa’s leaders to use public policy effectively to correct it. The voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not a strategy at all, but rather our imaginary friend who assures us we’ll do the right thing. Or our farmers will. Someday. But no one will make either us, or farmers, do the right thing unless already inclined to do so.

We see it when exorbitant tax breaks or subsidies go to corporations without a discernible return to the public, while services that benefit not only the corporations but all Iowans — such as a strong PK-12 and post-secondary education system — are held back or even cut.

And we see it here, in the Godfrey case. As the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Todd Dorman pointed out in a column today:

The jury found Branstad was in the wrong. Now, of course, if the verdict stands, it will be you and I who likely pay the freight. Maybe those captains of industry Branstad tried so hard to please by bullying Godfrey could pass the hat.
And of course those “captains of industry” would have to pass the hat if they are to contribute, because we don’t tax them enough. We keep giving away subsidies and tax breaks like candy.

But this is about more than taxes. As our senior research consultant, Colin Gordon, noted in a blog yesterday, Branstad’s own defense — effectively that he did not discriminate against Godfrey but wanted him out because of what he had heard from business owners — is a problem in itself. It is something that Iowa’s leaders need to recognize as a problem and if they cannot, the voters need to. The state is not here as a service center for corporations, but to serve all Iowans. When individual Iowans are injured on the job, they need someone enforcing the law, as Godfrey was doing.

By his own admission, Governor Branstad was taking his cues from his business cronies. And if you read the transcript of his deposition in the case under questioning by attorney Roxanne Conlin, you can see he didn’t investigate beyond the anecdotal whining he was hearing from selected business people.

And Branstad won’t be held accountable for it. The people of Iowa will be, in our common blame.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Better target senior tax breaks

Posted June 19th, 2019 to Blog

Also see Iowa Fiscal Partnership news release

A new paper about state tax breaks for seniors shows one reason pre-2020 chatter about new tax breaks in Iowa is a bad idea.

Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes in her report Wednesday that special income-tax breaks for seniors cost states 7 percent on average in 2013, a figure that will rise with growth in the population over 65.

As McNichol notes, “The senior tax breaks are poorly targeted because of their design: most states provide them regardless of the recipient’s income or savings.”

Put another way: Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and — as McNichol notes — in many other states as well.

It is a point Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner have made in Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) analysis over the years about Iowa’s special breaks for pension income, and as legislators phased out what had already been a limited tax on Social Security income.

Already, Iowa has freshly passed, costly and inequitable tax cuts scheduled to be phased in over the next few years, yet state legislators just last week were talking about bigger cuts in 2020. Given attempts to expand senior breaks in 2018, but not adopted in the final package, there is a danger that new income-tax cuts in 2020 could include the new senior breaks.

Among changes considered in 2018 was an expansion of Iowa’s already generous pension exclusion from $6,000 (single) and $12,000 (couple) to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively.

McNichol’s paper notes Iowa is one of 28 states that already completely exempts Social Security income from tax, and one of 26 that exempts at least some pension income.

Iowa, in short, is already quite generous to retirees. Also as McNichol notes, for some this might make sense — seniors at low incomes. But not all.

“A large share of these costly breaks go to higher-income seniors who need them the least. States should reduce this expense by better targeting relief to seniors with low incomes,” she wrote.

Bruner and Fisher noted this problem in their IFP paper last year:

Iowa has adopted a number of special provisions benefiting seniors. While the elderly and disabled property tax credit is available only for those with low income, the other tax preferences are not based on ability to pay:

•   All Social Security benefits are exempt from tax.

•   The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.

•   Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.

•   While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis of tax policy and tax proposals is always grounded in fundamental principles of taxation, among them fairness: Similarly situated taxpayers should be treated similarly in tax policy.

What matters more to measure a taxpayer’s ability to pay is the amount of income, rather than its source. To tax income from wages at a higher rate than retirement income violates that principle.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax-cutters’ lack of confidence

Posted June 13th, 2019 to Blog

In the confidence game of cutting taxes, where the world is promised to all but delivered mainly to the wealthy, Iowa’s tax-cutters are showing how little confidence they have in their own political talk.

State Senator Randy Feenstra of Hull is backing off his chairmanship of the Senate Ways and Means Committee as he runs for Congress in 2020, leaving the door open to Senator Jake Chapman of Adel.

Both have been big talkers painting the glories of tax cuts while running down Iowa’s competitive tax structure, and they have been successful using that political spin to make big changes — many of which are scheduled but yet to take effect.

Even then, they apparently will waste no time in rushing through new tax cuts, as evidenced by this story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. There, Chapman is quoted that “he expected the Legislature would continue next session ‘to reform income taxes and reduce some of the highest tax rates in the country.’”

Before addressing the fundamental inaccuracy of the senator’s comment, one must wonder at least two things:

•   Are they not confident what they have passed already will not deliver what they promised?
•   Are they not confident they will retain political power through the Statehouse (the House is a much closer partisan split than the Senate) past the 2020 election?

Answering “yes” to either would explain their perceived need to rush more ill-advised tax policy into law.

In a very short span, Iowa lawmakers have eroded revenues with new tax giveaways to the wealthy and powerful, leaving scraps to working families in the middle and below. This has come with changes in personal income taxes, corporate income taxes and property taxes.

As Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner pointed out in an Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis, he income-tax cuts passed in 2018 give almost half of the overall benefit to the highest-earning 2.5 percent of taxpayers — those making $250,000 or more.

 

 

 

 

 

Senator Chapman plays games with the term “tax rates” as if the highest tax rate is what anyone ever paid on all their income. It’s an illusion.

The highest rate — already reduced from 8.98 percent to 8.53 percent this year under the 2018 law — is a marginal rate; it is paid on only the highest share of income. The same taxpayer who pays the highest rate on one share of income also pays the lowest rate on the share of income where that rate applies.

In short, it’s a mix of rates — and they are applied to taxable income, which has many adjustments to lower that amount. Most notable among those is Iowa’s unusual provision to allow taxpayers to deduct federal income tax from state taxable income, which benefits higher-income people the most.

The tax-rate myth promoted by Senator Chapman is an old game, but the people who want to reduce public services and investments in the future keep playing it. And why not? They’re getting away with it.

The 2018 legislation includes ongoing rate cuts — if revenues reach high-enough levels. One reason to pass rate cuts again in 2020, before that deadline, is that you don’t expect the revenue targets to be met.

These changes have come at great cost to public services, including poor funding of public education from K-12 through community colleges and universities.

Looking ahead to the future of our state, and beyond the next election, would be the wisest course for Iowa tax policy. That is not what we’re getting.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Dumbing down definition of poverty

Posted June 11th, 2019 to Blog

If you wanted to reduce the number of people defined as being in poverty, without reducing poverty itself, what might you do? You could always mess with the numbers.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a solid report out today showing how a Trump administration proposal would do just that. Authors Arloc Sherman and Paul van de Water examine the administration’s proposed alternative to the way cost-of-living adjustments are made to the official poverty guidelines.

The first problem, of course, is that the official poverty guidelines have almost nothing to do with the cost of living. They are an outdated formula — they are a half-century old while, not surprisingly, families’ spending needs have changed. We have shown this regularly at the Iowa Policy Project with our Cost of Living in Iowa research.

Here is what our report, by Peter Fisher and Natalie Veldhouse, noted last year:

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. However, the federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago. The calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food. Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today…. Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 above shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines. In fact, family supporting income even with public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 1.1 to 3.0 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs. Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two-parent family with one worker.

Because the guidelines do matter in the computation of eligibility for work-support programs, it is essential that they are not eroded further to disadvantage low-income families. As the CBPP authors note, not only is the poverty line itself too low to reflect basic needs, but the annual cost-of-living adjustment, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), also is flawed:

Prices have been rising faster than the CPI-U does for the broad categories of goods and services that dominate poorer households’ spending. The poorest fifth of households devote twice as large a share of spending to rent as the typical household, for example, and the cost of rent rose 31 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 17 percent for the overall CPI-U. In addition, recent studies find that low-income households may face more rapidly rising prices than high-income households even for the same types of goods, possibly because low-income households have fewer choices about where and how to shop.

The Trump plan would make that worse, substituting another cost-adjustment measure that slows the pace of upward adjustments in the poverty guidelines. The plan would magically declare that some people below the current poverty line are no longer poor.

Messing with the numbers is never an answer to identifying the challenges one might address with better public policy. Seriously analyzing the relevant ones is essential.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org