WASHINGTON – Now that Congress has pushed us away from the “fiscal cliff” and saved 98 percent of us from an income tax hike, we all need to brace ourselves for higher taxes, starting with our next paychecks.
That may sound incongruous, but it’s true.
While Congress extended the income tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush for all but the wealthiest taxpayers, lawmakers did nothing to extend a two-year, 2-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare. So a tax cut that benefited nearly every American worker expired quietly, almost unnoticed.
You will notice the change in your next paycheck, though, since it’s likely to be 2 percent smaller than you were expecting. Add that up over the course of a year, and for someone earning $50,000 a year, it’s a $1,000 loss.
Although Congress didn’t spend much time debating the payroll tax issue, those who work with people close to the financial edge are worried about what the higher payroll tax will mean.
“This is going to hurt people who are barely making it paycheck to paycheck, who don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” said Paul C. Atkinson, president and CEO of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo.
Atkinson said he was surprised that no members of Congress pushed hard for extending the payroll tax cut, but that’s pretty much what happened.
That being the case, the payroll tax rate will immediately go up to 6.2 percent on the first $113,700 of everyone’s income. We’ve all been paying a 4.2 percent rate for the last two years.
Congress enacted that cut in the payroll tax rate back in 2010 when it seemed that the Great Recession would never end, thinking the immediate boost in everyone’s paycheck would spur the economy.
“It was a middle-class tax cut that had its intended benefit,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
This time around, though, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were reluctant to extend the payroll tax cut amid rising concerns about the federal deficit and the long-term financial viability of Social Security and Medicare.
“The thinking is, the payroll tax goes to fund Social Security, and you can’t cut off revenue to Social Security and at the same time shore it up,” Higgins said.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, who serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, noted that it was the Senate and not the House that developed the final fiscal cliff deal that allows the payroll tax to rise.
Ideally, Reed said, he would prefer that the payroll tax be kept low, but he understands the other side of the equation.
“Obviously, I’m very concerned about the future of Social Security, and that payroll tax goes to fund the Social Security liability that’s out there,” Reed said.
That concern is warranted. Thanks largely to the retirement of the huge baby boom generation, the Social Security trust fund for retirement benefits is on target to run out of money in 2035, according to the trustees who oversee the program.
That being the case, Social Security advocates opposed the payroll tax cut from the start. Permanently cutting the payroll tax by 2 percent without replacing the lost revenue would double the Social Security trust fund’s projected shortfall over 75 years, according to Social Security Works, an advocacy group.
For the last two years, though, Congress used general tax revenues to patch the hole in the trust fund created by the payroll tax cut. But with rising concerns about the federal deficit, that robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach found few takers in the fiscal cliff debate.
On the contrary, lawmakers such as Reed are more interested in reforming Medicare and Social Security to secure their long-term future.
“We need to address Medicare and Social Security solvency as soon as possible,” Reed said.
Still, a payroll tax hike at this point will have an economic impact, and not a good one.
The increase will reduce household income by about $125 billion nationwide this year – and thereby cut the expected growth in the gross domestic product by about 0.6 percent, JPMorgan Chase Bank said in an analysis last fall.
George M. Palumbo, an economist at Canisius College, agreed that the payroll tax hike will hurt the economy.
“I would expect that it would have a relatively modest impact – but a negative impact,” he said.
Atkinson, of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, said that negative impact will hit an economy that has by no means recovered from the Great Recession.
“The point is, this tax cut was put in place to benefit the middle class” in difficult times, he said. “Now it seems that somebody in Washington thinks things are rosy again, but I don’t know who those bozos are. As far as I’m concerned, things are not terribly great around here.”