The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 presents an opportunity to devolve power from Washington and to test the belief that innovation can flourish best at the state level. As laboratories of democracy, the states can take the next step toward welfare reform by establishing state tax credits for charitable contributions.
Encouraged by charitable tax credits, taxpayers can donate money directly to a food pantry, homeless shelter or private job-training program. They can have a voice in how their money will be used to assist the poor.
The advantages are numerous. Instead of "paying" the government to provide welfare benefits, with the money filtering down through the system, taxpayers provide direct assistance themselves. This privatization of the welfare delivery system enhances demand for talented, innovative organizations that can help people become self-sufficient. It encourages taxpayer participation, through voluntarism and oversight, in the delivery of welfare services.
In effect, a market system for private human-services emerges. As revenues from the tax credit grow, more nonprofits enter the field. Accountability and competition improve efficiency. Nonprofit organizations that underperform lose the support of taxpayers while those fulfilling their mission flourish. Moreover the poor themselves can choose which programs best suit their needs.
The Next Step Toward Welfare Reform: A Manual for Enacting State Based Charitable Tax Credits is a working guide for legislators, policymakers and opinion leaders interested in the implementation of charitable tax credits in their states. It provides answers to the theoretical and operational questions that arise when introducing tax credit legislation. It also includes model legislation that provides a starting point for states considering the adoption of a charitable tax credit.
While many Americans support welfare reform in its current form, they also support greater taxpayer involvement. In the fall of 1996, the Beacon Hill Institute asked 250 nonprofit executives in six states what they thought about tax credits. They registered strong support: 88% were in favor of tax credits for charitable contributions.
In the fall of 1997, BHI conducted a survey in which they asked Massachusetts residents if they would favor a proposal that gives taxpayers the right to deduct $200 from their state taxes if they give the same amount to a private charity that helps the poor. A resounding 81% favored the idea.
In January 1998, we asked a complementary question: If the government cut back on welfare spending, would you be more inclined to give to charities that helped the poor? By a margin of 59% to 29%, Massachusetts residents said they would be inclined to give more.
Beyond the considerations of public opinion, however, lie several new state based tax credit programs. They are examined in detail in section 5 of this manual. The framework for predicting giving in section 7 provides a methodology for determining the effects of a charitable tax credit on contributions and on tax revenues.
In order to write effective tax credit legislation, state legislators and policymakers must evaluate a host of preliminary considerations unique to their respective states. These include the philosophical and political consensus around the issue of welfare reform; the degree of administrative or bureaucratic inefficiencies within the current delivery system; the current role of nonprofits that provide human services and their prospective roles in a new competitive system; and how a charitable tax credit program could operate under the new federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.
Table of Contents
Appendix I: BHI Nonprofit Organization Survey Results
The Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research focuses on federal, state and local economic policies as they affect Massachusetts citizens and businesses. The institute conducts research and educational programs to provide timely, concise and readable analyses that help voters, policy makers and opinion leaders understand today's leading public policy issues.
© March 1998 Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University
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