You can’t turn on the television or open a magazine these days without hearing or seeing the term fiscal cliff. The media is awash with reports of President Obama and Speaker John Boehner’s negotiations over tax increases and spending cuts set to go into effect on Jan. 1, and of the likely dire macroeconomic effects of going over said cliff.
What gets less sustained attention is how the cliff, should it fail to be averted, will affect the individual taxpayer. This is primarily because the American tax code is very complicated, and the changes set to go into affect are manifold — so when the time comes, each of us is going to experience our own private cliff dive.
The well-off will be the hardest hit in dollar terms. Besides large marginal-tax-rate increases, the wealthy are most exposed when it comes to big hikes in capital gains and dividend increases, because they tend to generate more of their income from investments than those lower down the income ladder. And the more money you make, the better chance there is that you get hit with the Alternative Minimum Tax, which absent congressional action will ensnare 31 million taxpayers in 2013, up from 4.3 million in 2012, according to the Tax Policy Center.
But by no means are families in the middle class exempt from serious fiscal-cliff-related pain. In fact, one could argue that certain members of the middle class would suffer the most from our collective cliff dive — not because they’ll get hit with the biggest tax bill (again, the rich win that prize) but because their relatively modest incomes are going to take a disproportionately large hit.
What’s more, it’s possible to describe the (hypothetical) middle-class family that would be the hardest hit in this respect. We’ll call them the Cliffs. Mr. and Mrs. Cliff together make $82,000 and have four children. Because the Cliffs both work, they sometimes need to pay for child care. Even though money is tight in their household, however, the Cliffs have been able to invest in $10,000 worth of blue-chip, dividend-paying stocks, in addition to socking away money in their 401(k)s.
So how much will the Cliffs’ taxes go up as we go off the cliff? Some $530 per month, or more than $6,000 a year. Yes, you read that right. Here’s how:
Payroll-Tax Increase: As part of the effort to stimulate the economy, the payroll tax that workers pay for Social Security was reduced temporarily from 6.2% to 4.2%. That cut is set to expire in 2013, meaning the Cliffs will see 2% of their $82,000 go to the Social Security Trust Fund, rather than their bank account.
Annual hit: $1,640
Expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts: The temporary tax cuts that President Bush signed into law in 2001 and 2003 are set to expire on all levels of income on Jan. 1. That means that for married couples filing jointly, their first $17,800 of adjusted gross income will be taxed at 15% rather than 10%, and their adjusted gross income between $60,350 and $72,300 will be taxed at 28% rather than 15% (the marginal tax rate for income between $17,800 and $60,350 will remain unchanged at 15%).
Yes, you read that right too: their marginal rate will jump from 15% to 28%. In addition, the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly will decrease from $12,100 to $10,150.
Annual hit: $2,677
Decreases in the Child Tax Credit: The Bush tax cuts also increased the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000. But with the expiration of those cuts, the child credit expires as well. The four Cliff children were saving Mr. and Mrs. Cliff $4,000 in federal income taxes, but that savings will be reduced $2,000 after Jan. 1.
Annual hit: $2,000
Dividend-Tax Increases: The Cliffs’ $10,000 investment in the stock market is spread out among a few high-dividend paying stocks, which average a yield of 3% — or $300. With dividends scheduled to be taxed as ordinary income in 2013, that $300 will be taxed at 28%, vs. the 15% dictated by current law.
Annual hit: $39
For the Cliff family, this means a total tax increase of $6,356 in 2013, or roughly $530 per month. For a middle-class family, this amount is huge. That’s more than what it takes to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Tulsa, Okla. It’s more than twice the average employee-paid share of health-care coverage for families. And it’s roughly the average cost of tuition for a private elementary school.
To think that America’s leaders are in Washington now, using this debate as a way to score Brownie points with activist supporters, or as a chess piece in a larger game of political one-upmanship, is beyond depressing when you see how individual middle-class Americans will be hurt. While our economy is deeply depressed, and the American government is borrowing at historically low rates, politicians are dithering while the affordability of basic necessities like these hang in the balance for families like the Cliffs.