Stolen Social Security number? The IRS doesn’t care

IRSThe IRS is giving away money to people who file tax returns with stolen Social Security numbers, and they intend to keep right on doing it.

That was the message from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen to the Senate Finance Committee during a recent hearing on cybersecurity failures and other problems at the Internal Revenue Service.

“These are cases in which someone uses someone else’s identity, their name or their Social Security number, to get a job illegally,” Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana, explained.

The IRS knows but doesn’t care.

Sen. Coats was a bit frustrated. “The IRS continues to process tax returns with false W-2 information and issues refunds as if they were routine tax returns, saying, ‘That’s not really our job,’” he said.

Although the Social Security Administration notifies the IRS when a name does not match a Social Security number, these notifications are ignored. IRS employees are not allowed to tell the real holder of the Social Security number that someone is using their identity, and nobody alerts employers that they have submitted false W-2 information.

Last year, the IRS identified 200,000 new cases of employment-related identity theft.

Koskinen winked at the problem. Sometimes Social Security numbers are “borrowed from friends or acquaintances,” he said, “and people know they’ve been used. Other times they don’t.”

The priority for the IRS, Koskinen told the committee, is “collecting those taxes.”

That’s very misleading.

Millions of low-income people in America don’t owe any income taxes and pay little or nothing to the U.S. Treasury during the year, yet they still receive thousands of dollars in a “tax refund.”

That’s because over the last 40 years, Congress created a financial assistance program which is run through the Internal Revenue Service. For those who qualify, the Earned Income Tax Credit can be worth over $6,000, the child tax credit is worth $1,000 per child, and education credits are worth thousands more. These credits are fully or partially “refundable.”

Most people assume that everyone who receives a tax refund is simply getting back the money they overpaid during the year. Not so.

“Refundable” tax credits are paid out in a tax refund, even if no taxes at all were paid in. The money comes from the U.S. Treasury; in other words, from other taxpayers.

These annual “tax refunds” are routinely worth thousands of dollars, which is why you see storefront tax preparers pop up in low-income neighborhoods every January, why retailers like Walmart offer to cash tax refund checks for customers who don’t have bank accounts, and why there’s so much fraud — over $15 billion in fraudulent refunds for 2014 alone.

However, it’s perfectly legal for undocumented workers to claim the child tax credit and the education credit and to receive a taxpayer-subsidized tax refund.

The government knows who’s working illegally, because the IRS gives undocumented workers an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, that can be used to file a tax return. An ITIN can’t be used to get a job, because employers aren’t supposed to hire unauthorized workers. Hence, stolen Social Security numbers on the W-2s of people who file their tax returns with ITINs.

The IRS, which will happily send you a threatening letter if you fail to report 12 cents in interest income, has no interest at all in enforcing the laws against working in the United States without legal authorization.

They just process the returns and send out the refunds.

They know they are sending money to people who filed false W-2 forms with somebody else’s Social Security number.

And now, so do you.

Real Solution for Poverty is Economic Growth, Not Welfare State

PovertyIncome inequality is taking center stage as a high profile issue in both national and California politics this year.

An op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch gained attention when he wrote there was one issue he agreed with Democratic Socialist and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (Sanders) “believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness… I agree with him.”

The reference to the agreed upon “two-tired society” caught my attention because of a speech the late congressman and Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Jack Kemp, gave to the Heritage Foundation over a quarter century ago. Kemp was addressing the argument put forth by former New York governor Mario Cuomo that America had created a society of two static classes– the rich and the poor. Kemp argued, rather, that America was divided into two economies.

“One economy – our mainstream economy – is democratic capitalist, market-oriented, entrepreneurial, and incentivized for working families whether in labor or management. … The irony is that the second economy was set up not out of malevolence, but out of a desire to help the poor, alleviate suffering, and provide a basic social safety net. But while the intentions were noble, the results led to a counterproductive economy. Instead of independence, it led to dependency.”

Government solutions to address poverty have been offered since President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty. Yet, over 50 years after the War on Poverty began — and with about $22 trillion spent — the poverty rate is about the same.

The issues of poverty and income inequality are expected to take a prominent place in this election year. As soon as Gov. Brown released his latest budget, advocates for more money for poverty programs started complaining and campaigning to expand poverty programs. An initiative has been filed to raise and spend more money on poverty issues.

The real solution for poverty and income inequality is economic growth. That was the message Kemp was offering a quarter-century ago and it is still the best answer today.

An essay by Professor John Cochrane at Stanford’s Hoover Institution lays out the powerful argument for promoting strong economic growth.

Cochrane shows the power of economic growth on individuals by demonstrating when the United States enjoyed 3.5 percent economic growth from 1950 to 2000, an individual’s income rose from $16,000 to $50,000 (measured in 2009 dollars.) Had the economy grown at 2 percent – about the growth rate the country has experienced since 2000 — the individual’s income would be $23,000, not $50,000. Quite a difference.

Economic growth not only provides hope for relieving poverty but also is the key to fortifying the sagging middle class.

While Cochrane’s numbers are national in scope, California policymakers must focus on ways to improve growth in one of the largest economies in the world. With the loss of manufacturing jobs, California’s middle class is in jeopardy. With one third of Californians relying on Medi-Cal and the state’s cost-of-living adjusted poverty level the highest in the nation, enhancements to poverty programs is not a long-term answer. The sooner pro-growth policies are put in place, the quicker people can climb out of poverty and boost the middle class.

This is not to say that government cannot have a role in helping the poor.

California recently joined about half the states in providing an Earned Income Tax Credit. An effort is being made to encourage those eligible to file their tax forms and secure the credit. The Earned Income Tax Credit is a positive program to encourage workers to stick with employment as they work on raising their standard of living.

In fact, in that aforementioned speech by Jack Kemp, he included the Earned Income Tax Credit as one part of the solution for lifting people out of poverty.

Kemp’s goal was to reestablish the link between effort and reward.

He said of the poor in his Heritage Foundation speech: “They don’t want lectures on income redistribution and capitalist exploitation, they want income and capitalism.

“They don’t want more government promises and egalitarian welfare schemes, they want to live in neighborhoods free from crime and drug abuse, with good jobs and opportunities to own property and homes; they want quality education so that they and their children can live better lives. They want what we all want – a chance to develop their talent, potential, and possibilities.”

Yet, in Sacramento we hear too much about the need for more and larger poverty programs and too little about encouraging and developing economic growth and incentivizing the link between effort and reward. Shortsighted solutions will not solve the deepening crisis of income inequality.

Developing strong models for economic growth would enhance other quality of life aspects that Californians expect. As Prof. Cochrane notes in his essay, “Only wealthy countries can afford environmental protection and advanced health care.”

The way to increase the wealth for all, to fortify the middle class, and to help take people out of poverty is to promote ideas for economic growth and good jobs. People will have the opportunity to rise — something across the ideological divide that all agree is the goal.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily