Order Some More Avocado Toast: What Tax Reform Means for Millennials

Young Americans need a fairer, simpler tax code, but there are reasons to worry Congress will screw this up.


Tammy Ljungblad/TNS/Newscom

Depending on which definition you're using, the generation of Americans known as "Millennials" started being born somewhere between 1977 and 1982. Suffice it to say that none of us were paying much attention to politics the last time Congress passed a comprehensive tax reform bill, in 1986.

Though there's no way to know whether any tax bill will make it through Congress this year, Millennials have reason to be optimistic about reforms that lower rates and spur economic growth. But we should also be wary. America's fiscal policy could rob tax reform of its benefits if left unaddressed or made worse.

First, the good.

Probably the most obvious benefit of tax reform—for Millennials and for plenty of other Americans too—is the potential for simplifying the tax code. Republicans have promised that tax reform will make it possible to file your taxes on the back of a postcard, something they say can be done by ending special tax breaks and shortening the tax code. At present, the code is more than 4 million lines long and complying with it consumes more than 6 billion hours every year, according to the IRS' National Taxpayer Advocate.

The economic and accounting burdens of complying with the tax code fall inequitably on smaller businesses and individual taxpayers, according to research by economists Jason J. Fichtner and Jacob M. Feldman of the Mercatus Center. "An overly complex and cumbersome tax code favors businesses and individuals who can afford well-paid accountants and lawyers," they wrote in a 2015 report.

A simpler tax code is good for almost everyone, but it stands to help Millennials more than most. A 2016 survey commissioned by NerdWallet, a San Francisco–based personal finance website, found that 80 percent of taxpayers aged 18 to 34 say they're fearful about some aspect of preparing taxes, well above the 69 percent of people across all ages who said the same thing. Millennials might have an undeserved reputation for being easily frightened, but there's no doubt that the current tax code induces unnecessary stress. And Millennials are the group least likely, generationally speaking, to have access to tax help.

"Millennials tend to have less experience with a deeply confusing tax code, less cash to seek professional help and less need for the more complicated returns that having children or a mortgage can bring," says Liz Weston, a personal finance columnist at NerdWallet.

Tax reform carries other benefits for younger Americans. Done right, it means increased economic growth and more job opportunities. In the four different tax reform ideas floated last week by the Tax Foundation, projected GDP growth ranged from 2.2 percent to 7.1 percent. Wages are projected to grow too, by between 1.6 percent and 5.3 percent in the foundation's four scenarios.

Lower corporate taxes—the GOP plan would cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent—mean potentially lower costs for all consumer products, from avocados to iPhones.

"Tax reform must be bold" for it to work, says David Barnes, policy director for the pro-market group Generation Opportunity. "It must make the tax code simpler, fairer, and more efficient by eliminating special interest tax credits and deductions."

Still, tax reform carries plenty of risk.

If Congress passes and Trump signs a tax reform bill that doesn't do anything to cut spending, it will only pile more debt onto younger generations. Already, each American owes about $62,000 as his or her share of the national debt—that's roughly 8,850 orders of avocado toast (average cost: $7)—and that amount will get larger if tax rates fall and spending doesn't.

But does Congress even care about the deficit? The outline of a tax plan introduced by Republican leaders this week suggests not. The plan would cut $5.8 trillion in taxes, offset by only $3.6 trillion in base-broadening offsets. That leaves a $2.2 trillion deficit increase over the next decade, according to an estimate by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

In the long term, the biggest drivers of the national debt are entitlements. While there's little chance that entitlement reform will be part of the tax reform discussion, it would be unwise for Congress to ignore the subject entirely. Millennials, in particular, get the short shift when it comes to old-age programs that function as a massive transfer of wealth from the young to the old. As Nick Gillespie and Veronique de Rugy wrote in a still-timely Reason cover story in 2012, "Social Security and Medicare, which provide retirement and health insurance benefits for senior Americans, generally without regard to need, are funded by taxes on the relatively meager wages of younger Americans who will never enjoy anything close to the same benefits."

If Congress is serious about fixing the tax code and cutting out portions of it that only benefit special interests, older Americans must be considered one of those special interests. Tax cuts that add to the national debt and leave entitlements on their current unsustainable paths will hurt Millennials the most.

If it's done wrong, tax reform can leave us with years of slower growth under the weight of crushing debt, the ongoing transfer of wealth from the young-and-poor to old-and-rich, and the threat of future tax increases to meet spending and debt obligations.

"Young Americans want a fairer tax code that unrigs the economy," says Barnes, "and puts ordinary Americans ahead of special interests and the well-connected."