Regressive US tariffs

Edward Gresser says that US tariffs are disproportionately applied to goods consumed by low-income Americans. Moreover, he says that there aren’t enough low-income Americans working in those industries for the employment benefits to outweigh the consumer costs of “taxing the poor.”

It is only a slight exaggeration to argue that the tariff system has essentially evolved into a tax on clothes and shoes, which generate most of the government’s revenue from tariffs. In 2007, clothes alone accounted for $9.5 billion of the $26 billion in U.S. tariff revenue, shoes added $1.9 billion, luggage and handbags another billion. The cost to the public, magnified by retail markups and sales taxes, is likely about $40 billion a year. It is a burden that disproportionately affects poor and working-class Americans.

Though the tariff system is smaller than other taxes, it is far more regressive. This is because poor people spend a greater share of their income on clothes and shoes than do wealthy or middle-class people. The cheap and simple goods made in poor countries and bought by low-income Americans are subject to far higher tariffs than luxury goods. An acrylic sweater attracts a 32 percent tariff, while a cashmere sweater gets only 4 percent; a polyester bra is tagged with a 17 percent tariff, while one made of silk gets less than three percent; and a cheap stainless steel fork is hit with a 19 percent tariff, while a silver-plated spoon has none at all…

In 1998, high-tariff industries — such as shoes and textiles — employed about 930,000 people in the United States. By 2002, the number had declined to 650,000. Now, with tariff rates unchanged, the figure has dipped to 400,000 U.S. workers. And the highest tariffs are often the least effective. The 48 percent sneaker tariff, for example, falls on a product that has not been made in the United States since the early 1970s. The United States today now finds itself clinging to an antiquated system that hits poor people hardest and protects few if any jobs while stunting growth and discouraging exports from some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries.