Restored payroll tax pinches those with smallest checks

  • Article by: NELSON D. SCHWARTZ , New York Times
  • Updated: February 8, 2013 - 12:01 AM

Social Security’s withholding bump in January begins to hurt.

Eddie Phillips, who earned $22,000 last year, is feeling the bite from the sharp increase in payroll taxes that took effect in January.

Photo: TODD HEISLER • New York Times ,

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Jack Andrews and his wife no longer enjoy what they call date night, their once-a-month outing to the movies and a steak dinner at Logan’s Roadhouse in Augusta, Ga. In New York’s Harlem, Eddie Phillips’ life insurance payment will have to wait a few more weeks. And Jessica Price is buying cheaper food near her home in Orlando, even though she worries it may not be as healthy.

Like millions of other Americans, they are feeling the bite from the sharp increase in payroll taxes that took effect at the beginning of January. There are growing signs that the broader economy is suffering, too.

Chain-store sales have weakened over the course of the month. And two surveys released last week suggested that consumer confidence is eroding, especially among lower-income Americans.

While these data points are preliminary — more-detailed statistics on retail sales and other trends will not be available until later this month — at street level, the pain from the expiration of a 2 percentage point break in Social Security taxes in 2011 and 2012 is plain to see.

“You got to stretch what you got,” said Phillips, 51, a front-desk clerk and maintenance man for a nonprofit housing group who earned $22,000 last year. “That little $20 or $30 affects you, especially if you’re just making enough money to stay above water.” So he has taken to juggling bills, skipping a payment on one this month and another next month.

“I’m playing catch-up each month,” he said. “You go to the supermarket and you can’t spend what you used to.”

Jack Andrews has it slightly better than Phillips. He earns a bit more than $40,000 a year manufacturing ceramics in a local factory, but because his wife, Cindy, is disabled, he is the sole breadwinner. Something had to give now that he is earning about $800 less a year, or $66 a month, and it was the couple’s monthly night out.

“It’s just gotten out of reach,” Andrews said.

The tax break, which was pushed by the White House to stimulate spending in 2011 and extended in 2012, was always supposed to be temporary. But with pressure building in Washington to reduce the deficit and politicians fighting bitterly over whether to raise taxes on the very rich, the question of how the increase in Social Security taxes would affect the poorest workers did not seem to garner much debate on either side of the aisle.

“I don’t see any reason to consider supporting its extension,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said in testimony last year. Even Nancy Pelosi, a reliable liberal who leads the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, was for letting it expire.

The higher rate applies to all earned income up to $113,700. For a household earning $100,000 a year, the 2 percentage point increase means an additional $2,000 a year in payroll deductions. Economists estimate that the payroll tax increase will reduce Americans’ disposable income by about $120 billion and shave half a percentage point from economic growth in the first quarter — a significant blow given that the economy is expected to expand only 1 to 2 percent in the first half of 2013.

‘It’s very regressive’

“If you wanted to design a policy to squeeze the spending of lower- and middle-income households, raising the payroll tax is the way to do it,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors. “It’s very regressive.”

Retailing analysts and economists say high-end earners will largely be spared.

When asked how their financial situation had changed in January, 32 percent of people with incomes below $75,000 said their pay had dropped, compared with 13 percent who said it had increased. By contrast, 38 percent of people earning more than $75,000 said their wages had gone up last month, and 23 percent said they had gone down.

In fact, as companies paid out dividends to shareholders early to avoid the higher tax rate for 2013, personal dividend income increased at a seasonally adjusted monthly rate of 34.3 percent in December, compared with a 4.5 percent rise in November.

 

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