Today, April 15, is Tax Day, the day that federal and state income taxes are due. Well, it would be if this were a normal year. The Treasury Department and IRS have pushed back the 2019 filing deadline to July 15 of this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. That means you have more time to file your taxes which, if you’re eligible, can land you a $1,200 stimulus check. But, wait! Before you hop on irs.gov to finish filing, you should know about some of the ways in which tax policy both shapes and is shaped by the world we live in:
The very first question on the 1040 form (which is used for individual income taxes) asks if you’re filing as single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household, or as a qualified widower. The current federal individual income tax gives most couples a marriage bonus, which serves to hammer home the age-old, patriarchal idea that marriage is an end goal for everyone (but especially women). By offering women financial benefits in exchange for a relationship that provided men respectability and reproductive command over their wives, marriage has been used as a tool of control for millennia. And that’s just heterosexual relationships. Marriage has been largely off-limits to queer couples for most of history; until recently, many gay and lesbian couples filing taxes in the U.S. couldn’t access the same financial benefits.
Tax policy is no friend to college students: there’s plenty of complex decisions to make, like whether to file as a dependent or not, how to claim education tax credits, and so on. But many of these choices unduly harm low-income students, like the post-2017 tax rate on unearned income known as the “kiddie tax.” For college students on financial aid and/or receiving scholarships and grants, this means that the portion of assistance received for non-tuition items (think what you pay for room and board) is now taxed at unusually high rates–similar to the rates that a wealthy young adult’s trust fund would be taxed at. This major change in tax law hits vulnerable students on the basis that they receive money to pay for housing and food. Plus, college students who are filed as dependents aren’t eligible for the stimulus check I mentioned earlier. All of this only feeds into the popular sentiment that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is noble (when it’s nearly impossible) or that college students are all elite and wealthy (which is clearly not true).
Last but not least is the charitable deduction, which allows filers to write off donations to nonprofits. This is most useful for very high earners, who can choose to spend on causes they care about while reaping both tax benefits and public good will. But we should be thinking beyond giving millionaires and billionaires tax breaks to encourage their charitable giving; instead, we should focus on true redistribution through higher tax rates for the uber-wealthy, like increases in estate taxes and wealth taxes proposed by a few former presidential candidates. Such measures would allow the public, not private individuals, to choose the best ways to help the most vulnerable populations.