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Talking Points Lite

One advantage President Obama’s foes have in mounting their domestic agenda of obstruct and obscure is the luxury of the content-free talking points. For example, ever since President Obama proposed limiting the tax deductions of the most affluent Americans as a means of paying for health care reform last, a favorite Republican argument has been a rhetorical question — echoed everywhere from a Republican fund-raiser last week in Richmond, Va., to ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” to the Wall Street Journal — “Is there any better time to have charities in full throttle than when you have tough economic times?”

Actually, Obama’s proposed changes to upper-bracket tax deductions wouldn’t affect charitable giving much, according to a new analysis of data from the Tax Policy Center data by Paul Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In a paper released today, de Water makes three points:

First, a substantial portion of charitable giving derives from foundations, estates, and corporations and from individuals who do not itemize their contributions on their tax returns. Itemized contributions represent only 62 percent of total charitable giving.

Second, the proposal would affect only the 1.2 percent of tax filing units that are in the top two income tax brackets. Tax Policy Center data indicate that these taxpayers account for only 18 percent of the charitable contributions that are reported as itemized deductions. Thus, only about 11 percent of total charitable giving would be affected.

And third, Van de Water says, taxpayers in the top two brackets pay “59 cents after taxes for each dollar contributed to a tax-exempt charitable organization. Under the proposal, which would limit the federal deduction to 28 percent, that person would face an after-tax cost of 66 cents — an increase in cost of 12 percent.” Based on research on the effect of tax incentives on charitable giving, de Water says the resulting reduction in giving would amount to “about 1.3 percent.”

In short, the result of the proposal would be to promote a modest but real shift from private charity toward a popular public goal: expanding health care coverage. Do conservatives have any data to contradict Van de Water’s analysis? If they do, I haven’t seen it.

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