As presented in an earlier blog post, I’ve written a web page to graph the flow your taxes. I’ve updated it for the new tax forms just put out for tax year 2018. Everything seems to work now, but it was an emotionally jarring experience. And not because of the tax reform, which had at least one nice addition to help struggling parents, but because of how it was presented to those parents on the forms.
The online path not taken
First, when I talk about tax forms, a lot of people immediately reply well I don’t see why everybody doesn’t just use TurboTax.
But a lot of people don’t: 15.5 million people filed a return without using any e-file options in the first half of last year. For comparison, the LA metro area has around 4.6 million households.
In case you’re one of the 15.5 million, TurboTax is a product from Intuit, a company which spends millions of dollars a year trying to prevent the implementation of simplifications like the postcard return (discussed below). The IRS has a no-compete clause that bars the IRS from implementing its own tax calculation software.
One of the e-file options is to use Free File Fillable Forms, operated from servers at Intuit.com, which it brags is available for free to 100% of filers. It provides pictures of the tax form for you to fill in on-screen, so if we hope to live up to Intuit’s promise, we still have to understand the tax forms. [As an aside, FFFF as software basically works but is somewhat un-automated and dysfunctional. I use it, but in tandem with the Python version of the tax calculator linked above.]
There are some social services attached to the tax forms, including the Earned Income Credit (EIC) and child tax credit (CTC). At the end of 2017 CTC was expanded to the Additional CTC, which, like EIC, is refundable: even if you have zero taxes, if you are eligible for EIC or ACTC the government will send you a check. In other contexts, this would be called welfare, but given the efforts to make that a dirty word, perhaps the right place for these programs is the tax form, where it is a little more sanitized. The American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits are also in this basket.
Yes, these laws are complicated, and you can see the legislative back-and-forth in the eight pages of the EIC instructions. One side wants to keep it open, the other says that if you got rental income you might not fit the image the legislators had in mind (but fill in a 16-line form in IRS publication 596 to see if you are). The Alternative Minimum Tax shows the back-and-forth in even greater force, with one side proposing the basic concept and the other side inserting an exception and the first side inserting an exception to that exception. But today’s discussion isn’t about the laws themselves, but changes in how the forms are displayed to the public.
Consider a family who is the target of these programs. They’re going to school, raising a kid, and aren’t making a lot of money in what time is left. They’ve heard of these programs and are maybe seeking them out. They skim the tax forms hoping for a big red arrow saying CLAIM ACTC HERE, but no such luck. For example, here is the text they would read on line 17:
17. Refundable credits: a. EIC (see inst.), b. Sch. 8812, c. Form 8863. Add any amount from Schedule 5
Did you miss it? Schedule 8812 is the form where they would calculate the additional child tax credit.
Maybe they can check the instructions, but the HTML version of the instructions for the IRS’s 1040—its flagship form—has trouble printing tables in a legible form and is currently missing the CTC worksheet entirely. I feel for the people at IRS who are trying to keep these things afloat despite constant budget cuts and a new tax law that went from introduction to passage in about 100 days. But this essay isn’t really about the people who are given the orders and, because everybody hates the IRS, starved of staffing and funding to fulfill those orders. We can go a step or two higher in the decision making process.
How did a major new program wind up as “b. Sch. 8812”?
Another major priority this year was to get the form onto a postcard. Where did this goal come from? Some countries have a postcard return, in which the government prepares a postcard telling you their estimate for your taxes, based on all the information they already have from your employer, your bank, and so on. Most people have straightforward enough taxes that they can just sign the postcard and be done with their taxes; the option exists to send in forms for people with odd situations.
Somehow, in the last election cycle or two, this got corrupted into your tax form which you prepare and send to the IRS should be small enough to fit on a postcard. And that got taken to heart, because the 1040 is 22 lines, down from 79 last year, and would now fit onto a 5×7 inch card.
They achieved this by adding six new schedules. Legal reforms were not huge for individual tax procedure, so the new 1040 with its six backup schedules are a rewrite of the same 79 lines, plus or minus. The new schedules even retain the numbering from last year, so for example, Schedule 5 runs from lines 66 to 75.
There are exclamation marks, so it’s fun.
And now that we have a modular 1040, why bother with the simpler 1040EZ and 1040A? In years past, the 1040EZ was targeted at low-income people like the family above, whose sole interest outside the bare basics would be EIC and child care. That form and the 1040A have been eliminated. After all, if you don’t need Schedule 2—which is three lines long, asking for two tax elements and their sum—then don’t file Schedule 2.
I can’t conceive of any motivation for eliminating the 1040EZ and adding six new schedules other than the political, the desire to have a small piece of paper to display. But it creates problems.
Filling in taxes is a two-way search, where you have in mind a list of rules you know apply to you that you need to find on the form, and are also aware (worried?) that there may be parts in the forms you didn’t know about that apply to you. You don’t know if you need Schedules 1 through 6 or 8812 until you pull them out and skim them to see what you need. Above, line 17 said to add the total from Schedule 5. Check the HTML or the paper/PDF instructions for line 17, and you’ll see there’s no mention of the schedule at all. The only thing to do is find Schedule 5 and read through it.
And, by design, there’s more paper. Sure, each schedule is as short as three lines long, but when one form sends me to another form, which may send me to another form yet, it feels like bureaucratic runaround. And tax law is unconcerned with encapsulation. In preparing some parts of this year’s tax calculator I sometimes found myself with two forms, a schedule, and possibly two instruction booklets open at the same time. With the 79-line 1040, I’d at least have one fewer schedule and possibly one fewer instruction book. FFFF, by the way, only lets you see one form or schedule at a time. As somebody who has helped a good number of people fill in their tax forms, who remembers one or two of them breaking down weeping over how daunting even the 1040EZ is, I view these additional levels of redirection that 15 million individual filers will have to go through as a real harm.
Let’s return to the parents trying to raise some kids and get an education at the same time. These are the heroes of the story, for whom the system was designed. There were people in Congress who wanted them to receive benefits, reserving thousands of dollars for each of tens of millions of such people. But there were also people whose goals were elsewhere, including some legislators who overburdened the law with baroque details, whoever came up with the idea for Schedules 1-6, and evidently Intuit. Who won? Click through to the tax graph, check the box for student loans and expenses, and add a kid or two in the appropriate box, and have a look at the flow of taxes our family has to work through.