Toil Index and Tax Credits for Home Ownership

Robert Schiller from Yale gave props to Richard Green of USC for his recommendation that there be a targeted tax credit to encourage homeownership.  Green and Andrew Reschovsky of Wisconsin have studied the data closely are clear that the real benefit of existing tax policy allowing a standard deduction for interest on mortgages is for more wealthy homeowners who itemize their taxes.  They have concluded that this primarily encourages them to build bigger houses, rather than distributing the benefits as real incentives to home ownership.  The multi-billion dollar tax loss of interest deductions is the largest US investment in citizen wealth, and despite the fact that this investment has created homes as the single largest source of citizen wealth for many working families, the recent recession has now wiped out wealth for such families and destroyed confidence without offering an alternative for low-and-moderate income families to create wealth.  I’m not sure that these professors are right, but at least it is a way to go until we can right-size solutions to our current predicament and the emerging future.

Robert Frank of Cornell helped defined challenge to the middle class by creating what he called a “toil index” to puzzle out a problem he had recognized from Elizabeth Warren and her daughter’s book about the “two income trap.”  That problem was essentially that middle income families were being pushed into buying houses past their means in order to secure good schooling for their children.  He notes that, “The increase in the toil index has been spectacular.  From a postwar low of 41 hours a month in 1970, it rose to more than 100 hours in 2005.”

If a family is lucky, and it takes a lot of luck these days, to have two breadwinners working fulltime 100 hours of work would still be almost one-third of their income going to put a roof over their heads.  That doesn’t work under any calculation either for a family or for the entire economy which despite the failures of HAMP, Treasury, and the Obama Administration to address, is still very important to the US economy and the recovery from neighborhood to neighborhood around the country.

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