The size of the average tax refund continues to drop, according to the latest IRS statistics. The IRS has found that Americans filing returns are now likely to see 16.7% less money than they received last year.
According to the data, the average refund size received in 2018 was $3,169 — while this year’s refunds have shrunk to $2,640.
Previous data released by the IRS showed that refunds had dipped by 8% on average. The refund size casts unfavorable light on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the Republican tax reform law championed by President Trump. The bill was criticized as an unnecessary win for large corporations and the rich, who saw their tax rates slashed and refunds increase.
While TCJA did lower individual tax rates and boosted standard deductions (nearly doubling deductions for single filers from $6,500 to $12,000), it limited the popular state and local tax deductions, also known as SALT. Taxpayers living in states and cities with high property taxes were hit hardest by this move.
Americans frequently rely on their tax refunds to pay bills or boost savings, but are now being left with smaller refunds — or worse, surprise tax bills. That said, analysis by the Tax Policy Center does show that the majority of Americans did in fact receive a tax cut, even if their refunds have gotten smaller.
“The analysis that we’ve done is that two-thirds will get a tax cut, and a small percent — 8 or 10 — will get a tax increase,” Tax Policy Center Director Mark Mazur told Yahoo Finance.
‘Goosing people’s paychecks by under-withholding’
But if TCJA reduced tax liability, why then are refunds shrinking?
Many point the finger at paycheck withholdings.
While the IRS encouraged taxpayers to update their withholdings, few did. In July 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that under the new law, more Americans would owe money to the IRS while those receiving refunds would decrease. In the end, many Americans saw modest increases in their paychecks throughout the year, but didn’t notice.
“In the [George W.] Bush administration, there was a tax cut and they sent people a check,” Mazur said. “And people remembered that they got that check. In the Obama administration, there was a tax credit that was delivered in the form of a reduced withholding — and people didn’t notice it.”
He added: “When they did polling on the Obama tax cut, people didn’t think they got it. Those lessons apply here. Unless people do that comparison, they don’t know. They focus on the dollars in and dollars out when they file their returns.”
Nearly 40 Democrats in the Senate have criticized the Treasury Department of manipulating withholding tables to make it appear as if Americans had received a windfall.
“It looks like the Trump Treasury Department spent 2018, an election year, goosing people’s paychecks by under-withholding, and it should have been obvious that the bill would come due eventually,” Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also slammed the administration over its tax policy: “Many Americans depend on their tax refund to pay bills and make ends meet – but this tax season, working families will see smaller than expected returns and surprise tax bills because the Trump administration used smoke and mirrors in a shallow attempt to exaggerate the impact of their tax law on middle class families for political reasons.”