Amid the celebrating about extending federal income tax cuts to everyone in the year ahead, New Jersey is ringing in the new year with a substantial tax increase. Not to worry, though, the only ones who will be paying more in taxes are those who can least afford to pay more.
The state saved $45 million in the current year budget when it slashed a tax break given to families scratching out a living just above the poverty line. This tax break called the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides a credit to working poor families against the tax they might pay on the income they earn. The New Jersey EITC is calculated as a percentage of the federal EITC. The state reduced that percentage last year to 20 percent from 25 percent of the federal credit (a 20 percent cut), starting January 1, 2011.
This change will result in a $300 loss to a single parent raising two children with a minimum wage job that pays $15,000 a year. That amounts to more than one week’s pay. Even with the extension of federal tax cuts in Washington, working poor families in New Jersey will be less well off in 2011 than they were in 2010.
While the Christie Administration said the state could not afford to sustain the 25 percent credit to the poorest families in the coming year, the Governor and the Legislature have been willing to increase tax credits to major corporations by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Here’s just one example of many. Through the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program, the state approved three 10-year tax breaks that will benefit Wakefern Corporation, which operates the Shop-Rite chain of grocery stores. Wakefern itself received a $29.2 million grant in August and will benefit from another $15.7 million grant to its landlord. In December, it received a third grant for $58 million. Wakefern certainly must have been pleased to get these tax breaks. Especially since all it had to do was locate three warehouses in Newark and Elizabeth, which it might have done anyway. The state, on the other hand, will lose up to $103 million in corporate tax revenues over ten years if Wakefern fulfills the grant requirements.
Tax credits are set up to encourage certain behavior. The governor and legislators choose to believe that offering tax credits to corporations will encourage them to do what they otherwise might not do. They are even willing to give away billions of dollars with little proof that these incentives cost more than they benefit the state.
Evidence does exist that the EITC encourages people to work rather than accept welfare. By leveling the playing field for families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (that’s $36,620 for a family of three in 2011), it encourages them to work. The credit is designed to help offset the high cost of living in New Jersey (which ranks fifth among all states) and compensates them for paying a disproportionate share of their income in regressive taxes, like sales and property taxes.
Gov. Christie pushed for and the Legislature approved a cutback in the EITC despite the opposition of working parents who depend on these funds to support their children and in the face of objections from advocacy organizations representing these families. It was the wrong thing to do at a time when so many poor families are struggling.
New Jersey has become a state that cuts taxes on millionaires and corporations but raises them on the state’s poorest working families. The EITC is a good investment for New Jersey’s workers. In the coming fiscal year, the governor and the legislature should find the $45 million necessary to help people help themselves.