America’s Tax Code: Creating Gender Equity

with Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center

Advocates say that the federal tax code, created in 1939, is plagued with outdated provisions, disadvantaging female taxpayers.

Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center discusses the role gender plays in our tax structure and how equity can be achieved.

Posted on:

Mar 02, 2020

Hosted by: Sheila Hyland
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hyland: The U.S. tax code was created in 1939, with major updates in 1954 and 1986. Recent reports from the National Women's Law Center raise concerns about gender inequities in the code. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Sheila Hyland. Joining me to talk about how the tax code impacts women is Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care/early learning with the National Women's Law Center. And Melissa, thank you for being our guest today.

Boteach: Thanks for having me.

Hyland: I want to start off by mentioning something that the National Women's Law Center pointed out, and that is legal expenses to defend against bribery charges can be deducted as a business expense. But the mother who is paid poverty wages and needs child care to work can't access a tax credit for child-care expenses because her income is too low. That is just one example of many that you can cite.

Boteach: Exactly. You look at the tax code, and it was written, in many ways, at a time that did not reflect the realities that women are facing today. So right now, women are a majority of our workforce. They need child care in order to participate in the labor force. But if you are somebody who is working in retail, somebody who is working as a nurse's aide, doing essential work in our economy, your income is not going to be high enough to claim any child-care tax benefits. And when it comes time to invest in child care, on the spending side, we say, "Oh, we don't have enough resources." And so there's all these kinds of inequities baked into our tax code that are mostly invisible to everyday people.

Hyland: Wasn't the tax code created to do away with those inequities?

Boteach: It's interesting. The progressive movement of the early 20th century was instrumental in setting up a progressive income tax so that the higher your income is, the higher rate you should be paying.

Hyland: And it used to be up to 90%

Boteach: It used to be up to 90%. Over time, what we've seen is, first of all, that movement never reckoned with the legacy of slavery. It never reckoned with gender inequality and the fact that women couldn't vote. And so a lot of the racial and gender inequities from our society at that time were never fully addressed in our tax code. But then you look at what has happened since then. We've carved out tax breaks, we've carved out loopholes, we've forgone needed revenue to make public investment by allowing people to deduct legal defenses for bribery, as one example. And so it's really not looking out at what is the collective best interest. It's what special interests would like to get a break on their taxes.

Hyland: So the National Women's Law Center and some of its partners have published three reports examining the federal tax code. What are some of the takeaways from that? What have you learned?

Boteach: So, it's interesting. I've been studying taxes for a long time. And when we looked at the tax code top to bottom from this lens, even I was surprised at some of the things that we found. Number one, I think it's obvious when you hear it, but it's not obvious when you immediately think about taxes -- They're not race- and gender-neutral. Taxes are a social document. Our tax code is reflecting our priorities and our values as a country. And so when you look at who gets tax breaks and who doesn't, who is paying the majority of taxes and who isn't -- all those kinds of questions -- it reflects who and what we value. And I'll give you one example. If you have a physical workplace injury, it's even written in the tax code as workman's compensation. That's not taxed. But if you get a workplace-injury award for sexual harassment or discrimination, which is mainly filed by women, people of color, people with disabilities, that is taxed. And so you think about what had to happen for the tax code to get written in a way that those kinds of inequities are sprinkled throughout.

Hyland: And so your center is suggesting that we should have a rebalance of inequities. Is that basically redistribution of wealth that you're talking about?

Boteach: What we're talking about is making sure that our tax code does a few things. Number one, that it raises sufficient revenue to make the investments that we need. We all know that women's equality in this country will require some public investments. We're the only developed country that doesn't have paid family and medical leave. Our child-care system is underfunded and patchwork. Only one in six eligible families receives any child-care assistance. We have gender inequities with the pay gap, especially for women of color. They're making cents on the dollar for every dollar earned by a white man. When you think about how the tax code then treats those inequities that are baked in and the lack of public investments we've made in order to help women achieve equality, it becomes a gender-justice issue.

Hyland: So the question is, what are you doing to try to change the tax code and make it more equitable for all?

Boteach: There's a few things we need to do. First, we need to build on what works. We have two tax credits in our system that are actually doing the right thing by women and families. The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are disproportionately claimed by women and women of color, women-headed households. And they are one of our most effective poverty-fighting tools and tools to help families stabilize when they're facing economic shock. So that is something we are doing really well. And so what we need to rethink about is when we look at other tax breaks that we have and what other kinds of behaviors we're incenting through our tax code. Are those incenting behaviors that women are also undertaking or in ways they can access them? Are they what's known as refundable, meaning that if you are lower-income, can you actually claim those? And are we raising enough revenue to make the public investments that we need? And so what we've called for is both getting the data on race and gender -- in many cases, which is not available -- to be able to really examine proactive tax proposals and then making sure that we are taxing wealthy households both because we need the revenue, but also because the way the tax code is written, it shapes corporate behaviors in ways that can have negative effects on women workers.

Hyland: All right. If people want more information about the reports and what you're doing, where can they go?

Boteach: nwlc.org_-- National Women's Law Center website. Thank you.

Hyland: Melissa Boteach, thank you so much for being our guest today from the National Women's Law Center. And thank you for watching. For more great conversations with leaders from your community and across the nation, visit I'm Sheila Hyland.

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