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How the Proposed GOP Tax Plan Will Punish Disabled Americans

Tax credits and medical deductions make many disabled lives easier. The GOP wants to end them.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan looks on as President Donald Trump speaks about tax reform legislation in the Cabinet Room of the White House on November 2nd, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan looks on as President Donald Trump speaks about tax reform legislation in the Cabinet Room of the White House on November 2nd, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The Republican Party released a document last week detailing its most fervent dreams: a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code. Promoted as simplifying our tax system, the document replaces an array of deductions for poor and middle-class Americans with myriad new proposals intended to reward large corporations and the mega-wealthy.

In the disability rights community, criticism of the plan has focused on the proposed annulment of several discrete deductions that benefit people with disabilities and those who care for them. We have long used the tax code in lieu of a more robust safety net to incentivize certain types of actions or to make necessary costs more affordable; now, the GOP wants to erase those provisions and make a vulnerable population even more susceptible to bankruptcy and lifelong poverty.

Here are some of the ways that the GOP tax plan would specifically harm people with disabilities. Right now, the medical expense tax allows taxpayers to write up medical expenses for themselves and dependents that exceed more than 10 percent of their adjusted gross income. About 6 percent of all taxpayers use this deduction, including those responsible for dependents with intensive care needs who don't qualify for Medicaid. The Republican plan ends this key deduction. Of course, the GOP is also taking every available action to shred the safety net and insure more out-of-pocket costs for people who won't be able to deduct these costs.

It's not just personal deductions that are getting axed. Currently, small businesses can get a tax credit for improvements related to making their business more accessible. This credit has been essential for, among other things, pushing back against business claims that it's just too expensive to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). With legislation pending in congress that makes the ADA optional, this tax credit becomes even more important.

The list continues. Many adopted children have disabilities; the GOP tax plan repeals the adoption tax credit. People with rare conditions rely on the so-called "orphan drug tax credit" to push pharmaceutical companies to do research on treatments even when there might not be a big market. This credit, too, is cut under the GOP proposal.

As the plan was rolled out last Thursday, Rebecca Cokley, senior fellow for disability policy at the Center for American Progress, started texting me with the disability-specific attacks in the new GOP plan. Later, over the phone, she told me that the tax code as it currently exists is "not as helpful for families with disabilities as it could be, but it isn't overtly causing harm." With deductions on medical expenses and credits for accessibility or research, "there were opportunities for cost savings there. Now they are all gone."

In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to rely on these kinds of credits and deductions to ensure that disabled people have their medical needs met, that their families don't go bankrupt, that drugs will be developed regardless of the market, and that every child will have a home. There are other, better, ways to organize things that are fundamental social goods without pegging them to profits or personal income. Yet given the party's actions this summer on health care, it's clear that the GOP isn't going to expand the health-care safety net. Tax code deductions are, for now, what we've got.

Don't panic just yet. The current GOP tax plan is merely an aspirational document with little chance of passing. Because it will drastically increase the deficit, current Senate rules would essentially require 60 votes for the bill to pass. No Democrat will vote for it. On Sunday, Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, said he'd vote against it too if it increases the deficit.

But what dark aspirations for our ruling party to reveal. The GOP dream bill would hurt vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, in order to reward the mega-wealthy and giant corporations. Moreover, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been happy to change Senate rules before when it suited his agenda. It might soon be time to panic, or, better yet, to start calling your elected officials—and making sure your friends are registered to vote.