Building an Equitable Tax Code: A Primer for Advocates


In recent years a national discussion has been underway about the causes and effects of growing inequality, but one cause that has received little attention is the role of the U.S. tax code. The individual tax code contains more than $1 trillion in tax subsidies known to policymakers and economists as tax expenditures because, like spending programs, they provide financial assistance to support specific activities or groups of people. Of these subsidies, more than half a trillion, $540 billion, support some form of savings or investment (e.g., higher education, retirement, homeownership).

In theory, tax code–based public subsidies should help all families save and invest, but instead, wealthier households receive most of the benefits. In fact, a recent analysis of the largest wealth- building tax subsidies found that the top 1 percent of households received more benefits from these tax code–based subsidies than the bottom 80 percent combined.

The new brief answers key questions about tax expenditures: What are they, how do they work, and who benefits? In addition, since the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not collect tax data by race, the primer uses data related to the distribution of benefits by income quintiles and the demographics of each quintile to provide a rough approximation of how different racial and ethnic groups do or do not benefit from the different categories of tax expenditures.