Report

Expanded CalEITC Is a Major Advance for Working Families

California’s 2017-18 budget agreement included a major advance for working families who struggle to get by on low incomes. A “trailer bill” included in the budget package significantly expands eligibility for California’s Earned Income Tax Credit, the CalEITC — a refundable state tax credit that helps people who earn little from their jobs to pay for basic necessities.[1] Specifically, this bill 1) allows previously ineligible self-employed workers to qualify for the CalEITC and 2) raises the credit’s income eligibility limits so that workers higher up the income scale can qualify for it. These changes could extend the credit to well over 1 million additional low-income working families beginning in tax year 2017.[2] This represents a significant expansion of the CalEITC given that around half a million families might have been eligible for it prior to the expansion and that roughly 360,000 have annually claimed the credit since it was established in 2015.[3]

This report provides an in-depth look at what the expanded CalEITC means for low-earning Californians. It finds that the higher income limits will allow many more workers living in or near poverty, including single parents working full-time minimum wage jobs, to become eligible for the credit. However, these newly eligible workers will qualify for very modest credits — less than roughly $230 for those with children and under about $84 for those without children. Thus, while the budget agreement makes an important advance for working families by greatly expanding access to the CalEITC, state policymakers could further strengthen this critical tax credit by increasing the benefit these newly eligible workers can receive in future years.

More Low-Earning Self-Employed Workers Will Gain Access to the CalEITC

Prior to the expansion, the CalEITC was the only EITC in the nation that excluded many self-employed workers, such as small-business owners and independent contractors.[4] This exclusion undermined a fundamental purpose of the EITC: to encourage and reward work. The 2017-18 budget agreement ends this exclusion beginning in tax year 2017. As a result, all self-employed workers who meet all other requirements for the CalEITC will be able to benefit from the credit. This change better aligns California’s EITC with the federal EITC and ensures that the state credit incentivizes all types of paid work.

The Income Limits to Qualify for the CalEITC Will Increase Significantly

Prior to the expansion, many workers who struggled to get by were not eligible for the CalEITC because the income limits to qualify for the credit were extremely low. The budget agreement raises these limits in order to allow additional low-earning workers to qualify for the credit. For workers with qualifying children, the new income limit will be $22,300 beginning in tax year 2017 (Table 1). This is more than double the previous income limit for parents with one child and more than one-and-a-half times the previous limit for parents with two or more children. The budget agreement also more than doubles the income limit for workers without qualifying children, from about $6,700 in tax year 2016 to roughly $15,000 in tax year 2017.

Table 1

Higher Income Limit Means More Minimum Wage Workers Will Qualify for the CalEITC

The higher CalEITC income limits will allow more minimum wage workers to benefit from the credit. Prior to the expansion, many minimum wage workers earned too much to qualify for the credit, even though they earned too little to make ends meet given California’s high cost of living. For example, in tax year 2016, families with one child were not eligible for the CalEITC unless they earned less than about $10,000 a year, a salary that translates into working just 19 hours per week at the state minimum wage (Table 2).[5] Families with two or more children did not qualify for the credit unless they earned less than about $14,000 annually, equivalent to working 27 hours per week at the minimum wage. The CalEITC expansion will allow families to work up to 41 hours per week at the state minimum wage to benefit from the credit.[6] This means, for example, that the CalEITC will become available to single parents working full-time at the minimum wage (Figure 1).

Table 2

Figure 1

For workers without qualifying children, the new CalEITC income limit will increase to $15,010. Since this is less than a full-time minimum wage salary, the credit will not be available to full-time minimum wage workers without qualifying children. Nevertheless, this higher threshold means that these workers will be able to work up to 27 hours per week at the minimum wage and still qualify for the credit, up from just 13 hours per week to qualify previously.[7]

Higher CalEITC Income Limit Means More Working Families in Poverty Will Qualify for the CalEITC

Raising the income limits to qualify for the CalEITC will not only allow more minimum wage workers to benefit from the credit, but will also make the credit available to more workers living in or near poverty. Prior to the expansion, the CalEITC’s income limits fell well below the official federal poverty line. As a result, many workers living in poverty were not eligible for the credit. For example, single parents with one child had to earn less than about 62 percent of the poverty line to qualify for the credit. Beginning in tax year 2017, these parents can have incomes up to about 135 percent of the poverty line and still be eligible for the credit (Figure 2). Raising the income limits closer to or above the poverty line is important because many families with incomes this low struggle to afford basic expenses, particularly in high-cost areas of the state.

Figure 2

CalEITC Will “Phase Out” More Gradually, Allowing Workers Higher Up the Income Scale to Qualify

The size of the CalEITC for a particular family or individual depends on how much they earn and how many children they support. Specifically, the credit “phases in” (increases) for higher levels of earnings up to a certain maximum point, after which the credit “phases out” (decreases) for higher levels of earnings until it reaches $0. The budget agreement extends the CalEITC to workers higher up the income scale by phasing out the credit more slowly beginning at an income of $13,794 for workers with two qualifying children (Figure 3).[8] This is the income level at which these parents are estimated to qualify for a CalEITC of $250 in tax year 2017. For workers without qualifying children, the budget package phases out the CalEITC more gradually beginning at an income of $5,354 — the point at which these workers are estimated to qualify for a CalEITC of $100 in tax year 2017.

Figure 3

Most workers who previously qualified for the CalEITC will see no change in the size of the credit, while some will receive slightly larger credits. For example, there will be no change in the credit for parents with two qualifying children and earnings of up to $13,794 (Table 3). Those with incomes between $13,794 and $14,529 will qualify for slightly larger credits. For instance, a parent with two children and earnings of $14,000 will qualify for an estimated $244 from the CalEITC under the expansion, up from an estimated $180 if the credit had not been expanded. Workers with two children and incomes between $14,529 and about $22,300 will newly qualify for the CalEITC.

Table 3

Newly Eligible Workers Will Qualify for Very Modest Credits

Workers who become eligible for the CalEITC because of the higher income limits will qualify for very modest credits. Those with qualifying children will be eligible for roughly $230 or less, depending on their earnings. For example, a worker with two children could qualify for about $214 if she earns $15,000 or $126 if she earns $18,000 (Figure 4). Workers without qualifying children who become eligible for the CalEITC under the expansion will be able to receive about $84 or less, depending on their earnings. For instance, these workers would be eligible for about $84 if they earn $7,000 annually or $52 if they earn $10,000 annually.

Viewed another way, families working a total of 30 hours per week in 2017 at the state minimum wage (earning an annual salary of $16,380) will be eligible for an estimated $115 from the CalEITC if they have one qualifying child, $174 if they have two qualifying children, or $176 if they have three or more qualifying children (Table 4).[9] If the CalEITC had not been expanded in this year’s budget agreement, these workers would not have qualified for the credit at all.

Figure 4

Table 4

Conclusion

Creating the CalEITC was an important advance in how our state helps workers with low incomes to better afford basic necessities and move toward financial security. The 2017-18 budget agreement greatly strengthens this vital tax credit by extending it to well over 1 million additional low-income working families. Although many of the newly eligible workers will qualify for very modest credits, the budget deal lays the foundation for further strengthening the CalEITC, as state policymakers can build on these changes in coming years by increasing the size of the credit that newly eligible workers can receive.


Endnotes

[1] Senate Bill 106 (Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review, Chapter 96 of 2017).

[2] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). ITEP’s estimate is subject to some uncertainty. This estimate is largely based on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data on California tax filers who claim the federal EITC. However, only around 75 percent of Californians who are eligible for the federal EITC are estimated to actually claim the credit each year. This means that California’s federal EITC participation rate is implicitly assumed in ITEP’s estimate. In other words, this estimate may be understated to the extent that expanding the CalEITC encourages workers who qualify for the federal EITC, but who do not typically file their taxes, to file in order to benefit from the state credit. On the other hand, ITEP’s estimate could be overstated  given that the CalEITC appears to be undersubscribed. ITEP estimates that 553,000 tax units could have claimed the CalEITC in 2016, but actual claims were around 360,000. This suggests that ITEP’s estimate of the number of families who could benefit from the expanded CalEITC could be too high if many workers who are eligible for the credit continue to miss out on it in coming years.

[3] It is not known exactly how many families are eligible for the CalEITC. Estimates prior to the expansion ranged from around 400,000 to 600,000. Soon after the credit was signed into law, the Franchise Tax Board estimated that roughly 600,000 families would likely be eligible for it. (Personal communication with the Franchise Tax Board on September 22, 2015.) Similarly, a Stanford University analysis of US Census Bureau data estimated that approximately 600,000 families would have been eligible for the CalEITC if it had been in place in tax year 2013. (Christopher Wimer, et al., Using Tax Policy to Address Economic Need: An Assessment of California’s New State EITC (The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality: December 2016).) A more recent Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau data estimated that around 416,000 families might have been eligible for the credit in tax year 2015. Additionally, ITEP’s analysis of IRS data suggests that about 550,000 families were likely eligible in tax year 2016. (Personal communication with the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy on May 6, 2016.)

[4] Prior to the expansion, families and individuals who had self-employment income in addition to “earned income” qualified for the CalEITC if their federal adjusted gross income (AGI) was below the income limit. (“Earned income” was defined as annual wages, salaries, tips, and other employee compensation subject to wage withholding pursuant to the state Unemployment Insurance Code. Federal AGI includes both earned income and self-employment income, as well as several other types of income.) For these tax filers, the size of the CalEITC was based on their “earned income” if their federal AGI was below the income level needed to qualify for the maximum CalEITC. In contrast, if their federal AGI was at or above this threshold, then the size of the CalEITC was based on either their “earned income” or their federal AGI, whichever resulted in a smaller credit. Prior to the expansion, self-employed workers who had no “earned income” were not eligible for the CalEITC. These workers will qualify for the CalEITC beginning in tax year 2017, as long as they meet all other requirements for the credit.

[5] Earnings refer to annual earnings for the entire family.

[6] This means that in a family with one working parent, that parent can work up to 41 hours per week and still qualify for the credit. Families with two married working parents who file joint tax returns  could work a combined total of up to 41 hours per week at the minimum wage and still qualify for the credit.

[7] This means that single workers without qualifying children can work up to 27 hours per week at the minimum wage and still qualify for the credit, while married workers without qualifying children can work a combined total of up to 27 hours per week and still qualify for the credit. Most state EITCs base their credits on the same eligibility rules as the federal EITC, which means that all workers who qualify for the federal credit also qualify for the state credit. In contrast, prior to the expansion, the CalEITC was available to just a fraction of those who qualified for the federal EITC because the income limits to qualify for the state credit were extremely low. Beginning in tax year 2017, the new CalEITC income limit for workers without children will match the federal EITC threshold that applies to these workers (Table 1). As a result, all Californians without qualifying children who are eligible for the federal EITC will also be eligible for the CalEITC. The new CalEITC income limits for parents will also be closer to the federal EITC thresholds, which range from about $39,600 to about $48,300 for single parents, depending on the number of children they are supporting.

[8] For workers with three or more qualifying children, the credit begins to phase out more slowly at an income of $13,875 and for workers with one qualifying child, the credit begins to phase out more slowly at an income of $9,484. These income levels do not reflect the income levels specified in SB 106 due to errors in the bill. These income levels will be corrected in a subsequent bill later this fall. (Personal communication with the Department of Finance (DOF) on July 24, 2017.)

[9] Eligibility for the CalEITC is based on annual earnings for the tax filer (for unmarried workers) or the combined annual earnings of the tax filer and his or her spouse (for married couples filing taxes jointly). In other words, families will be eligible for an estimated CalEITC of $115 if they have one working parent who earns $16,380 or two married working parents who earn a combined total of $16,380.