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Al's Middle-Class Tax Targets--In The Metro N.Y. Region, Gore's Plan Treats Middle Incomes As 'Rich'


Al's Middle-Class Tax Targets--In The Metro N.Y. Region, Gore's Plan Treats Middle Incomes As 'Rich'

October 11, 2000
Urban PolicyOther

Here's a conundrum: New York metro-region voters, who stand to lose the most if Al Gore becomes president, are among those most eager for the vice president to step into the top job.

Gore enjoys some of his strongest support in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Taxpayers in these states already send tens of billions of dollars a year more to Washington than they get back in federal spending. Clearly, they have a lot to lose if Gore, as he has promised, were to shift more of the tax burden up the income scale.

The vice president's proposals rely on targeted credits whose value diminishes dramatically as family income rises. This means the Gore tax reductions are intrinsically biased against states and regions with high living costs and high average incomes, whose residents already bear the brunt of the federal income-tax burden.

Millions of families in high-income states qualify as middle class by the standards of their own communities. But Gore's ranks them as too "wealthy" to need--or deserve--a tax cut.

New York is a prime example.

The Empire State is a perennial net loser in the income-redistribution game and bears a disproportionately large share of the total federal income-tax burden. Factoring in steep tabs for state and local government, residents of New York are the most heavily taxed people in the country. If anyone needs relief, New Yorkers do.

They'd get it from George W. Bush.

The Texas governor's proposed income-tax cut would reduce tax liability in New York by $11.1 billion a year, according to a new Manhattan Institute study analyzing how the two candidates' plans would impact New York. Al Gore's tax plan, by comparison, would be worth about $3.5 billion to the state on a yearly basis.

No surprise there. But the most striking difference between the plans isn't Gore's refusal to cut taxes for those who pay the most taxes.

It's in the way he defines "middle class."

For example, Gore would correct the tax code's marriage penalty by increasing the standard deduction for married couples. His campaign issues book claims that "middle-class families, especially, will benefit" under this approach.

However, with their relatively high mortgages and state and local taxes, most New York couples claim itemized deductions. In fact, nearly three quarters of New Yorkers earning between $50,000 and $75,000--and better than 90 percent of those between $75,000 and $100,000--would get no marriage-penalty relief under the Gore plan.

In several respects, the Gore plan treats $60,000 as something of a dividing line for married couples: Above that level, his hike in the child-care credit drops to nothing, and his matching tax credit for retirement savings drops sharply, from $1,000 to $500.

But $60,000 is below the median four-person family income throughout the New York metropolitan suburbs.

The Institute's study also found that more than half of New York state's taxpayers would get no tax cut at all under Gore's plan unless they can squirrel away enough long-term savings to qualify for a tax credit under his proposed Retirement Savings Plus (RSP) program.

Since Bush would reduce tax rates across the board, all families who have any tax liability to start with will get a tax cut under his plan, regardless of family circumstances.

Indeed, our study found that Bush's plan will provide equal or greater savings for many middle class families who engaged in the Gore-approved activities of sending their older children to private college and their younger children to day care.

For example, our study calculated income taxes for a couple with two children and an annual income of $83,100--the Westchester County median for a family of four.

Assume both spouses work full-time, that one of their kids is in day care and that they itemize their deductions. Their comparative savings: $1,423 from Bush's plan, $0 from Gore's.

If they are able to put away $3,000 a year towards retirement, they will qualify for a $1,000 RSP credit, but that still leaves them $423 better off under Bush's plan.

This family does better under Gore's plan only if it saves $3,000 for retirement, has one child in a private college (for which they receive a bigger tax break under Gore's plan) and have one child in day care.

Of course, such scenarios can be manipulated to make any plan look better than another. But once income hits $60,000, relatively few families who would get more immediate tax relief from Gore than from Bush (other than a small number of taxpayers who would qualify for his $3,000 long-term-care credit because they have a disabled dependent relative).

Despite all this, Gore is polling well in all the high-income states. If he carries California, Illinois and Michigan, as well as New Jersey, Connecticut and New York, he'll probably win the election.

And if he does, many hard-working, middle-class families in Nassau, Fairfield and Bergen counties--to say nothing of the five boroughs--will have cause to recall the wisdom of Pogo: "We have the met the enemy, and he is us."