Tax concessions or subsidies

One of Labor’s proudest achievements is that it introduced compulsory super. A good thing too.

What a pity that when it did so it did it in a manner that provided much larger benefits to the rich than the poor. Super has a flat tax of 15% – or rather a range of flat taxes which mean that the degree of its concessionality is inversely proportional to your marginal rate of tax.

The Howard Government did something about this early in its life, introducing a super surtax on incomes over a certain level – though (from memory) its adherence to its promise of no new taxes meant that it adopted a means of collecting the tax which was more cumbersome than it need be. Be that as it may, as time wore on the Howard Government removed this surtax and has now greatly reduced taxes on super. All this while we hear about the need for ‘intergenerational equity’. Today super is even more concessional as a result – at least for the wealthy.

The result is twofold. Firstly, if one wanted to propose a policy to increase Australia’s savings, it is no longer clear that increasing super is such a great idea.  That’s because once the money is in there, the government loses lots of revenue as a result, which lowers government saving.

Second, contrary to the rhetoric of some of its opponents, the Howard Government has not presided over huge personal tax cuts to the rich.  But super has increasingly become a back door by which this has been done. A backdoor opened by Labor. What a pity.

So Labor’s proposals on childcare tax deductibility are a further disappointment – as Joshua Gans explains in Crikey! over the fold.

If it wanted the subsidy as tax breaks, it could have done so with refundable tax credits – rather than deductions.

Who pockets the child care rebate?
Joshua Gans writes:

Labor have announced that they will increase the child care rebate to 50 percent from its existing 30 percent. What this means is that working families will be able to claim 50 percent (up to a total of $7,500 per child) as a tax deduction. What is more, it will come quarterly.

This is a very significant change over existing arrangements. Actually, it is only this year that I, with an economics PhD, have been able to work those arrangements out and get a rebate. Previously, you had to have receipts and acknowledgements from many years before, that were claimed years later but only if you had filled in Form B of requisition C-182 and got your child to stand on their head for 90 minutes without complaint; or the equivalent thereof. So more transparency and immediacy is a good thing.

But will parents ultimately pocket the rebate? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it is in effect a subsidy to the industry and so parents, especially those about to have children, will likely see benefits from increased supply of child care centres.

But, there is also a no. The problem is that a rebate such as this has different impacts on families with different incomes. If you have a very high income, you will probably pocket your $7,500 per child. If you have a moderate income, youll also do relatively well. But if you have a low income, you may not pay enough in tax for this to matter as much.

Consider a family with two children in child care and both parents working. Then, even if you have no other deductions, under current tax rates, you will need a combined family income of $86,000 before being able to claim the maximum deduction. Under the proposed tax cuts by both parties, that figure will be even higher.

What this means is that high income families are getting a larger subsidy for child care than lower income ones. So if you were a child care provider, where would you set up shop? The investment equation is pretty clear.

Personally, I am all for thinking about interventions in child care as there are a number of distortions that make the work-home choice biased (especially with regard to tax implications). However, any rebate through the tax system will reflect the fact that richer folk pay more taxes and so get a larger benefit. It would be better to subsidise child care places themselves. While there are plans for such things within Labors overall policy, it is important to remember that the rebate, on its own, doesnt really do the job of targeting working families in need.

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Brendan Halfweeg
Brendan Halfweeg
16 years ago

Compulsory superannuation is immoral as it forces people into delaying comsumption until their retirement. As an interim method between the state pension system and returning to individual responsibility for financing your retirement, it may have has some merit in kickstarting the industry. However the percentage of salary going towards superannuation should decrease with time (and not bre replaced with state pension) until it is zero, by which time people will be more aware of the need to save for themselves.

Just think about it in these terms, the first homeowners grant and the baby bonus are set at values which many workers will have already accumulated in their superannuation policies. Without compulsory superannuation, they could fund their own homes or expanding families without the need for a state hand out, or more importantly do whatever the hell they want with it, including saving for the future.

This is a terrible legacy and an example of why legislation should have sunset clauses. I really don’t see the connection though between super and childcare. It is a person’s own personal decision on whether to have children or not and they should be fully responsible for the consequences of their actions. The best thing that “society” can do for parents and children is work towards continued properity through economic growth which will be assisted through maximum individual freedom and secure property rights, not subsidise them.

The ALP and Coalition have failed Australians on both of these issues.

16 years ago

Excluding the philospophical issues (do people really want the government to invest their money for them?) I’d like to see some analysis of Brendan’s comment on this. It seems to me that their probably is a trade-off between discouraging personal responsibility and people saving themselves. Does anyway know how big this trade-off is?

derrida derider
derrida derider
16 years ago

A couple of points only:

– the superannuation surtax, like most attempts to progressively tax super contributions, was inherently complex as it required funds to track the income of each member. There was no way around this, and the admin problems were the reason it was abandoned. But this problem was not related to the shenanigans over the accounting treatment of the levy in a vain attempt to pretend it wasn’t a tax.

– the regressive tax cuts in ordinary income tax (ie the large cuts in the upper-middle marginal rates) have had the paradoxic effect of reducing the regressivity of super tax concessions (in effect by changing the counterfactual). This both motivated and enabled (because of the lower cost) the ridiculous bribes to better off retirees that followed.

More generally, it’s good to see you take on board some of the criticisms I’ve made of super as a national savings policy.

On childcare subsidies I have amazingly right-wing views.

Its hard to justify any family assistance other than to the very poorest except by positing that having kids has large positive benefits to the wider society, so that we then pay people to encourage them to breed. But that is no justification for dabbling in how that money is spent, and it’s owed to rich and poor breeders alike.

So why not just replace the whole baroque apparatus of family assistance with an unconditional flat-rate payment? Removal of the joint-income test for the family benefit will more than compensate for the loss of childcare subsidies for double-income families, with a massive gain in transparency and simplicity. And if the universal payment is large enough the very poorest families needn’t be all that poor, greatly easing the tradeoffs in helping them.

Backroom Girl
16 years ago

DD – I think mostly agree with you there. Perhaps one of the long-term benefits of all this increased complexity in family assistance of one kind or another will be that (perhaps sooner than later) there will be enough money in the collective pot to bring in a reasonably generous per child payment supplemented for low-income families with a bit of fairly closely targeted additional assistance.

As long as you don’t mind the high EMTRs that would come with the latter, of course – I don’t particularly, but I think both sides of politics have done such a good job of convincing everyone that EMTRs of 60% or more are from the devil, that it might be a bit difficult to achieve.

As you would probably guess, I’m probably quite a bit more ambivalent than you on the issue of subsidies for child care, in order to enable lower-income mothers to work (and perhaps even more important to take up education or training).

However, I presume that the ALP’s new improved child care rebate will be on top of the means-tested Child Care Benefit. So I think Joshua Gans’ concerns about low-income earners not being able to benefit fully from the rebate are a little misplaced, since it is highly unlikely that they would ever be forking out enough for their child care to come anywhere near the upper limit.

His argument reminds me of the other one about how scandalous it is that people who live in poor suburbs don’t benefit much from the Medicare Safety Net. Well, no they don’t but it’s mostly because they pay very little for their medical services, rather than because they don’t consume them.


[…] Tax concessions or subsidies by Nicholas Gruen (Club Troppo 2007-10-23) discusses the difference between tax credits and direct subsidies, which addresses the issue of poor/rich selection of money in their pocket versus subsidising service provision directly. Posted in Australia, Economics and Business, Politics. […]

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
16 years ago

Why is it a bad thing that richer folks get more of the benefit? Staying home for child caring removes an income. If this is a low income then the value of this job is low and it makes more sense to stay home and care for the child. If it is a high value job, then there is more opportunity cost in staying home.

It seems to me that a tax deduction accurately reflects this. The only caveat is that you should only be able to deduct against the lowest household income which is not implementable in Australia.

Not to mention that child care costs REALLY ARE a cost incurred in pursuing your income, as opposed to much of the home office and assorted fudges that are claimed by all and sundry.

Backroom Girl
16 years ago

Don’t you understand, Chris, it’s always a bad thing if rich folks benefit more, even if the benefit consists of not having to pay over quite as much tax in the first place. The way some people carry on, you would think the pollies are proposing to tax the poor in order to give to the rich, instead of the other way around. :-)

I must say I’m always quite intrigued by the psychology that equates a tax cut with a hand-out.

Now, if we in Australia actually provided for children by way of tax concessions rather then by giving people handouts masquerading as tax concessions, Joshua Gans might have a point. But the fact of the matter is that most low to middle income parents do pay tax, even if they get more back in FTB and child care subsidies. So I think it’s highly likely that most would be able to get a full 50% rebate on their out-of-pocket child care expenses (after taking account of the initial subsidy through CCB)

16 years ago

I may have this wrong, but I understood that the child care rebate was refundable since the beginning of this financial year. The issue Joshua describes ceased to be a problem from 1 July 2007.

Assuming Labor keeps the scheme operating broadly as now, but simply increases the rate and periodicity of payments, it will still not be a problem.