On April 26, 2017, the White House unveiled a plan to provide “tax relief to both our corporations that will help grow jobs, and to middle Americans.” In a briefing, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn admitted that the President’s plan takes away a critical benefit for student loan borrowers.
Under the plan, which looks to slash corporate tax rates in an effort to spur a business expansion, the federal tax deduction for interest paid on student loans would be eliminated.
This comes on the heels of well-publicized moves by the U.S. Department of Education to strip away various consumer protections for borrowers in default.
Existing Student Loan Interest Deduction Rules
The student loan interest deduction is one of the few tax benefits that favors the taxpayer with limited income who doesn’t own a home, has no children, and otherwise would be hard-pressed to find a way to lower his or her tax bill.
Under current law, taxpayers with income of less than $80,000 ($160,000 if filing a joint return) can deduct from their taxes the amount paid for interest on qualified student loans. This adjustment to income, available to taxpayers even if they don’t itemize their deductions, can reduce the amount of income subject to tax by up to $2,500 per year.
For interest on the loan to be deductible, it must have been incurred for payment of qualified educational expenses of the taxpayer, his or her spouse, or a dependent. Loans taken from relatives or an employer’s retirement plan don’t count, but the loan doesn’t lose its status if the taxpayer later gets divorced or the dependent becomes self-supporting. A student loan for your child, for example, would qualify even if the child eventually moves out of the house and gets a job of his or her own.
The student must be enrolled at least half-time in a program leading to a degree or certification at a college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution eligible to receive federal student loans. Certain educational institutions located outside the United States, as well as institutions conducting internship or residency programs leading to a degree or certificate from an institution of higher education, a hospital, or a health care facility that offers postgraduate training also qualify.
The deduction provides a benefit to millions of taxpayers each year as they try to balance their student loan obligations with the demands of making ends meet. Given the income limitations, it comes as no surprise that the student loan interest deduction is important to people who need the money most.
This is exactly the benefit the Trump tax reform plan seeks to eliminate. But the Administration claims the overall benefit to the middle class will far outweigh the loss of this crucial deduction.
Who Benefits From the Administration’s Plan?
The White House plan doubles the standard deduction from the current $6,350 for single taxpayers and $12,700 for married taxpayers filing joint returns. It also does away with the alternative minimum tax as well as the estate tax. In exchange, all other deductions except those for mortgage interest, charitable giving and retirement savings are eliminated.
There’s no doubt that doubling the standard deduction will help millions of people, effectively giving $24,000 in tax-free money to married couples. But the alternative minimum tax, or AMT, is another story entirely.
AMT is a complex system that requires taxpayers to pay the higher of either their tax calculated under regular income tax rules or their tax calculated under the alternative minimum tax (AMT) rules. Given the way the numbers are calculated, AMT is more likely to hit households with higher incomes. In fact, according to the Tax Policy Center, 30.9% of households with income between $200,000 and $500,000 will be affected by the AMT in 2017. Married couples filing joint tax returns in 2017 will not be subject to AMT at all if their income is below $84,500.
The repeal of the so-called “death tax”, pitched as a tax cut for the middle-class, is also laughable. The IRS currently exempts the first $5.49 million of an estate’s value from taxation (though some states such as Massachusetts and Oregon have a lower limit). The estate tax does not affect people who die with less than $5.49 million worth of assets. In fact, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, 99.8% of estates owe no estate tax at all. That means only the estates of the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans are impacted by estate taxes.
In the end, it’s the wealthy and super-wealthy who benefit from the tax plan.
Guess Who Bears the Tax Burden?
Over 44 million Americans have student loan debt, with average monthly payments at about $350. According to a 2011 analysis of IRS Statistics of Income data performed by the Association of American Universities, over five million taxpayers benefited from the student loan interest deduction.
These are people with income below $80,000, or $160,000 for married couples filing a joint return.
None of these couples will have to worry about estate taxes because not only are they alive (estate taxes are taxes on the estate, not the beneficiaries) but their income is far below the $5.49 million mark. Even those subject to AMT are still able to deduct their student loan interest so long as they fall within income limits.
In other words, the burden imposed by the loss of the student loan interest deduction will be felt by households with more than $24,000 in annual income. The benefits of the new tax proposal, however, will be felt solely by those who make enough money that they would not qualify for the deduction in the first place.
Don’t Want to Lose Your Tax Deduction for Student Loans?
If you think this sounds like a raw deal, now’s the time to contact your Congressional representatives and let them know. Tell them you want them to vote against the 2017 Tax Reform for Economic Growth and American Jobs. Let them know the tax reform proposal will hurt you financially, and that you oppose it.
If you don’t let your elected officials know how you feel about the tax reform, how can you expect them to know?