Policy Basics: Tax Exemptions, Deductions, and Credits

PDF of this policy basics (3pp.)

Updated April 16, 2013

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Tax exemptions, deductions, and credits all can reduce the amount of taxes that a person owes. Some of these tax benefits are intended to reflect a person’s ability to pay tax; the Child Tax Credit, for example, recognizes the costs of raising children. Other tax benefits, such as the deductions for charitable donations and home mortgage interest payments, are incentives intended to advance specific social policy goals. 

Exemptions and Deductions

Exemptions and deductions indirectly reduce the amount of taxes a filer owes by reducing his or her “taxable income,” which is the amount of income on which a filer pays taxes. (For more information on taxable income, refer to “Policy Basics: Marginal and Average Tax Rates.”)

For example, a $100 exemption or deduction reduces a filer’s taxable income by $100. It reduces the filer’s taxes by a maximum of $100 multiplied by the tax rate the filer would have faced on that $100 in income. Since current income tax rates range from 0 percent to 39.6 percent, a $100 exemption or deduction reduces a filer’s taxes by between $0 and $40. 

The personal exemption is the amount that each filer can exclude from his or her taxable income; the exemption is $3,900 in tax year 2013. Filers can also claim exemptions for a spouse and each dependent. As an example, a married couple with two children can get four exemptions, reducing their taxable income by a total of $15,600 in 2013. The dollar amount of personal exemptions phases out for high-income filers.

Certain types of income, such as academic scholarships and portions of retirement income, are also tax exempt, meaning that they are not included as part of a filer’s taxable income.

A tax deduction is a specific expense that a taxpayer has incurred and can subtract from his or her taxable income. Deductions therefore can encourage certain uses of income. 

  • All filers are eligible to claim a standard deduction, worth $6,100 for a single filer in 2013. Filers may instead claim itemized deductions for certain expenses such as home mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and state and local taxes. Most filers take the standard deduction. Higher-income filers are much more likely to itemize because the amount they spend on qualifying deductions is typically greater than the standard deduction.
  • Taxpayers can claim certain deductions, called above-the-line deductions, whether they take the itemized deduction or the standard deduction. Examples include the deductions for moving expenses associated with relocating for a job, interest paid on student loans, and contributions to individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

Tax deductions (and exemptions) are worth different amounts to different taxpayers because, as discussed above, their value is tied to a taxpayer’s marginal tax rate. For example, high-income taxpayers in the 39.6 percent bracket receive a subsidy of 39.6 cents for every dollar of additional mortgage interest payments they deduct, while middle-income taxpayers in the 15 percent bracket get an interest subsidy worth only 15 cents on the dollar. Higher-income filers receive the greatest tax benefit from deductions because they face the highest tax rates.

In addition, for many low-income filers, the total amount of their deductions equals or exceeds their income, which means they have no taxable income. In such cases, they receive no tax benefit from any additional deductions.

Credits

In contrast to exemptions and deductions, which reduce a filer’s taxable income, credits directly reduce a filer’s tax liability — that is, the amount of taxes a filer owes. Taxpayers subtract their credits from the tax they would otherwise owe to determine their final tax liability. That means that a $100 tax credit reduces the amount of tax a filer owes by a maximum of $100.

Some tax credits are refundable, meaning that filers whose credit amount exceeds their tax liability can receive the difference in the form of a full or partial cash refund. Refundable tax credits thus have the same value for all tax filers, regardless of their income. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), for example, is a refundable credit designed to encourage and reward work as well as offset federal payroll and income taxes.

Non-refundable credits, in contrast, are worth less to many lower-income filers than to other filers. For example, a filer who qualifies for a $2,000 non-refundable credit but has a tax liability of only $1,000 can use half of the credit to eliminate his or her tax liability but must forfeit the other half.

Even refundable credits do not reach everyone, since only households with earnings from work can qualify. Still, making credits refundable extends their reach to many low-income households. This is important because the social policy objectives of many tax incentives — such as encouraging people to save for college or retirement — are often particularly relevant to low-income households.

Comparing the Value of Deductions and Credits

The table below compares the value of deductions, non-refundable credits, and refundable credits for three tax filers:  Filer A has no taxable income, Filer B is in the lowest marginal tax bracket (10 percent), and Filer C is in the highest bracket (39.6 percent).

Value of Deductions, Non-Refundable Credits,
And Refundable Credits
Tax
Filer
Marginal Tax Bracket Value of $2,000 Deduction Value of $2,000
Non-Refundable Credit
Value of $2,000 Refundable Credit
A * 0% $0 $0 $2,000
B 10% Up to $200 ($2,000 x 10%) **Up to $1,800 $2,000
C 39.6% Up to $792 ($2,000 x 39.6%) ***$2,000 $2,000
* A tax filer is in the 0% bracket when his or her taxable income is $0. For instance, Filer A may have $10,000 of income, which is then reduced to zero by the standard deduction and personal exemption. Even though Filer A has no taxable income, he or she must have earned income to qualify for the refundable credit.
**Roughly the first $18,000 of taxable income is subject to the 10 percent rate.
**Assuming a positive taxable income of at least $2,000.

The $2,000 deduction provides no benefit to Filer A because Filer A has no taxable income. Filer B receives up to $200 in tax benefits from the deduction, and Filer C receives up to $792.

Similarly, the $2,000 non-refundable credit delivers no tax benefit to Filer A because Filer A has no tax liability. The credit is worth up to $1,800 for Filer B (specifically, it is worth $1,800 or the amount of Filer B’s tax liability without the credit, whichever is lower). Filer C, a high-income filer in the top tax bracket, is assumed to have at least $2,000 in tax liability without the credit and therefore can benefit from the credit’s full $2,000 value.

The $2,000 refundable credit, in contrast, is worth $2,000 to all three filers. Filer A, who has no tax liability, would receive the entire amount as a check from the IRS (assuming that he or she had earnings from work of at least $2,000). 

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