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On Friday, the IRS held its EITC Awareness Day, working with local governments, non-profits and community groups to ensure that people potentially eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) file tax returns and claim it. The IRS says that one in five who are eligible for the EITC do not claim it.

The EITC, which is basically a tax credit equal to a certain percentage of earnings (up to a limit) to encourage work and reduce poverty, is widely misunderstood by many pundits and members of Congress. Like the Child Tax Credit, the EITC is a refundable tax credit, meaning it provides a benefit even when the credit is larger than the federal personal income tax that a taxpayer would otherwise owe. This can result in a negative income tax, meaning the IRS will send a check to the taxpayer.

These refundable credits are one reason why some Americans do not owe federal personal income taxes. (There are other reasons as well, like the fact that most of the Social Security benefits that retirees and people with disabilities receive are not subject to the income tax.)

Conservative Opposition to 2009 Expansions of EITC and Child Tax Credit

For the past couple years, conservative politicians and pundits have largely missed or ignored the fact that taxpayers with a negative income tax rate resulting from refundable credits do pay other types of taxes, which tend to be regressive. Federal payroll taxes, to take one example, are paid by everyone who works (and the EITC and the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit are only available to those with earnings). And all Americans pay state and local taxes, which are particularly regressive. The refundable credits in the federal personal income tax offsets some of the regressive impact of these other taxes.

Conservative politicians actually came out against expanding the EITC and the refundable part of the child tax credit in 2009, when President Obama proposed expanding the EITC for larger families and families headed by married couples and expanding the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit for very-low income working families. Those provisions were included in the economic recovery act enacted in 2009 and again in the deal the President made with Republicans at the end of 2010 to extend all the expiring tax cuts for another two years.

But each time Congressional Republicans introduced a proposal to extend tax cuts, it allowed these particular provisions to expire. CTJ’s figures showed what was at stake if these 2009 provisions expired. For example, CTJ’s state-by-state figures showed that in 2013, benefits for 13 million families with 26 million children would be lost if the provisions were not extended.

All Americans Pay Taxes

Conservative pundits claimed that these provisions led to nearly half of Americans not paying taxes. Paul Krugman at the New York Times, Ruth Marcus and Ezra Klein at the Washington Post and other observers have noted CTJ’s data showing that once you account for all of the different types of taxes, Americans in all income groups do, in fact, pay taxes and that our tax system overall is just barely progressive.

Mitt Romney and the 47 Percent

Perhaps the misinformation came to its spectacular climax when presidential candidate Mitt Romney was recorded making disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who, in his words, “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it… These are people who pay no income tax.”

2009 Expansions of EITC and Child Tax Credit Extended for Only Five Years

One might think that the backlash produced by Romney’s comments, and his subsequent electoral loss, might have prompted conservatives to change their thinking. But they can only evolve so much, so fast. As an apparent concession to the right, the fiscal cliff deal approved by the House and Senate on New Year’s Day extended President Obama’s 2009 expansions of the EITC and Child Tax Credit for just five years — even though it made other tax cuts permanent.

Making permanent the EITC and Child Credit expansion would have cost in the neighborhood of $100 billion over a decade, and the five-year extension of these provisions cost around half that amount. This is real money, but insignificant compared to the $369 billion spent on making permanent estate tax cuts for millionaires or the $3.3 trillion spent on making permanent most of the income tax cuts first enacted under George W. Bush.

The EITC and the Child Tax Credit do a lot to offset the regressive impacts of the many types of taxes paid by low-income Americans. Congress should remember this and make the recent expansions of these refundable credits permanent.