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President Obama’s proposal to limit the tax deductibility of charitable
contributions would effectively transfer more than $7 billion a year from the
nation’s charitable institutions to the federal government. But the high-income
taxpayers affected by the rule change are likely to cut their charitable giving
by as much as the increase in their tax bills, which would, ironically, leave
their remaining income and personal consumption unchanged.
In effect, the change would be a tax on the charities, reducing their
receipts by a dollar for every dollar of extra revenue the government collects.
It is hard to imagine a rationale for taxing schools, hospitals, medical
research budgets and arts organizations in this way. I suspect that the
administration officials who drafted this proposal did not understand that it
would have this perverse effect.
The proposed tax change would apply to married couples with incomes of more
than $250,000 (and single people with incomes greater than $200,000). Under
current law, such couples can deduct the value of their charitable gifts from
their taxable income. While no one makes a charitable contribution to get a tax
deduction, the deductibility of charitable gifts reduces the cost of giving and
therefore increases the amount that individuals give.
Consider: A high-income person paying taxes at a 35 percent marginal rate
lowers his tax bill by 35 cents for every dollar that he contributes to a
charitable organization. The net cost to the individual is 65 cents for every
dollar received by the charity. A substantial body of economic research shows
that, on average, each 10 percent reduction in the cost of giving raises the
amount that a person gives by about 10 percent. So, the 35 percent reduction
implied by current deductibility rules raises the amount of charitable giving by
about 35 percent.
The administration’s plan would limit the amount that high-income individuals
could deduct to 28 percent of their gifts, down from 35 percent, even though
their incomes would still be taxed at a higher marginal rate. This raises the
cost per dollar of giving from 65 cents to 72 cents, an increase of 10.8 percent
that can be expected to reduce the total giving of these donors by about 10
What would this mean in practice? Suppose someone would give $10,000 to a
university if that amount were deductible at 35 percent. That deduction would
reduce the individual’s tax bill by $3,500. Limiting the deduction to 28 percent
would lower the individual’s tax saving on a $10,000 gift to $2,800.
This is where things get interesting: If the 10 percent increase in the cost
of giving caused the person to reduce his gift by 10 percent, to $9,000, his tax
savings would be 28 percent of $9,000, or $2,520. The government’s revenue loss
would be reduced by $980 (from $3,500 to $2,520). The person’s gift to the
university would be reduced by $1,000, almost the same amount. Since this
high-income person would pay $980 more in taxes but give away $1,000 less, he
would end up with an extra $20 for personal consumption.
This is a hypothetical example, but the responsiveness of giving and tax
revenue reflects the evidence regarding how people respond to changes in tax
rates. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that in 2007 the
charitable deductions of those with incomes over $200,000 reduced government
revenue by some $23 billion. If the 28 percent limit had been in effect that
year, the $23 billion would have been cut by about $6.5 billion, and charitable
giving would have been reduced by an approximately equal amount.
By 2011, the year in which the Obama administration proposes to start the new
tax rule, the projected decrease in giving would surpass $7 billion. With the
endowments of charitable institutions sharply reduced by the fall in stock
prices, this loss of gifts would make an already bad situation worse.
Many tax features of the Obama budget should be changed to stimulate the
near-term recovery of demand and to strengthen long-term incentives for
productivity and growth. But the proposed tax on charitable gifts hits at the
foundation of our pluralistic society. The administration should recognize its
mistake and withdraw this proposal.
Martin Feldstein is a member of AEI’s Council of Academic
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