Distributional Analysis of the $2000 Survival Checks


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Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signed a law that directs the IRS to send $600 checks to every child and non-dependent adult with incomes below $75,000 (single tax filer), $112,500 (head of household tax filer), or $150,000 (married tax filer). Those with incomes beyond that amount have their total check amount reduced by 5 cents for every dollar that exceeds the threshold.

Since then, the House of Representatives passed a bill that increases the amount to $2,000 and includes all adults, not just non-dependents. The bill has the support of 78 percent of likely voters, Donald Trump, President-Elect Joe Biden, and the majority of US Senators, with at least 5 Senate Republicans announcing that they support the measure. The bill is currently being held up by Mitch McConnell but could conceivably come to a vote if McConnell feels the right kind of pressure.

Despite this widespread support, the proposal has come under attack. Many detractors, such as the Washington Post Editorial Board, have been arguing that the proposal is badly targeted from a distributive perspective.

This is a claim that has been circulated by a lot of people, but so far nobody has produced an actual distributional estimate of the proposal. The below graph shows my distributional analysis of the $600 and $2,000 proposals, which is based on the tax model used by the Census in the latest CPS ASEC file.

For both proposals, it is only the bottom 60 percent of people who are eligible for the full benefit. The next 30 to 35 percent are eligible for part of the benefit, with the richest 5 to 10 percent eligible for none of it.

Analyzing whether this is a badly targeted program is difficult because detractors do not typically offer up general principles for appropriate targeting.

One way around this difficulty might be to see how this proposal stacks up against other programs that are generally regarded as good. For example, when Marco Rubio proposed expanding the Child Tax Credit from $1,000 to $2,000 in 2017, the Washington Post Editorial Board praised the proposal, highlighting in particular its generosity towards low-income people.

The below graph shows what this CTC actually looks like in practice in a way that is generally comparable to the graph of the survival checks above.

The bottom 10 percent of children receive virtually no benefits from these CTC checks. The next 23 percent only receive partial benefits. On the top end, it is only the richest 2 percent of kids who see their benefits effectively zeroed out by the CTC phase-out, which kicks in at $200,000 (single tax filer) or $400,000 (married tax filer).

The CTC and the survival checks are both $2,000. But they distributively differ in two key respects: (1) unlike the survival checks, the CTC partially or fully excludes the poorest third of the distribution, and (2) the survival checks start phasing out around the 60th percentile while the CTC phases out around the 95th percentile. Put simply, the survival checks are distributively the same as the CTC except that they exclude none of the poor and exclude more of the rich.

To be sure, the CTC and the survival checks differ in other ways. The CTC only goes to children while the survival checks go to children and adults. The CTC is paid out every single year while the survival checks are a one-off measure. These are important differences but they are not what the debate about the survival checks has been about. The debate has been about distributional targeting and, on that measure, the survival checks are massively better than the CTC. The fact that the latter is praised as a great program specifically for the poor while the former is panned as a giveaway to the rich tells you all you need to know about the knowledge and intelligence of many of the nation’s leading political commentators.