Tax Bill Passes Exempting Tribal General Welfare Benefits

September 29, 2014

The Senate this month unanimously passed a bill exempting welfare benefits under Native American tribal jurisdictions from being counted as “income” for the purposes of income tax. The bill passed by voice vote in the House.

This bill was uncontroversial, largely because it is good policy. It resembles the way that the IRS already treats state welfare benefits. The IRS clarifies that benefits from state and local governments generally do not count as income.

While this may slightly reduce the potential tax base, in practice, taxing benefits causes far more trouble than it is worth. It is certainly the case that states and localities provide services of real economic value to the people who live there. It is also the case that some—but not all—of these benefits can be easily measured in dollars. But it would be an administrative nightmare for the IRS to evaluate every single local spending measure of any kind, and decide whether those spending policies constitute “income” for the people who benefit from them.

Suppose a local government implements a bus system, and offers discounted ticket prices to low-income citizens to help them get to work. Is this “income?” What if the discount is in form of a voucher with a clear dollar amount? Is it “income” then, counted as the dollar face value of the voucher? It is best for the IRS to avoid such metaphysical questions entirely, and focus on the larger tax bases that actually matter.

In the rare cases that the IRS has gotten into taxing state benefits, it has proven to be an awkward proposition. Benefits from the Alaska Permanent Fund are counted as income, which results in all sorts of problems, like messing up Earned Income Tax Credit calculations, or requiring children to file tax returns.

The Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act is consistent with the principle that tax policy should avoid complexity. In addition, it is consistent with a larger principle of U.S. governance: that the federal government should generally not interfere with the policies of smaller jurisdictions without good reason for doing so.

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