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Canadians face an unfair tax penalty on swings in their income from year to year.

Thursday, October 12, 2017 – Canadians face an unfair tax penalty on swings in their income from year to year, according to a report released today by the C.D. Howe Institute. In “A Question of Fairness: Time to Reconsider Income-Averaging Provisions,” authors Daniel V. Gordon and Jean‐François Wen find the tax bite is worst for lower-income Canadians and small business owners.

“Individuals whose incomes are irregular or fluctuate year-by-year face a greater tax burden than people with steady incomes,” says Professor Wen. “I call it the ‘fluctuation penalty.’  Reintroducing income-averaging provisions in the tax code would make the tax system fairer and encourage entrepreneurship.”

In groundbreaking research, the authors track the individual incomes of Canadians for six consecutive years from 2005 to 2010 using a Statistics Canada’s database. They identify the characteristics of individuals with high penalties and assess the fairness of the outcomes.

To explain the penalty, they use the example of a person without dependents living in Ontario. Suppose she earns $50,000 in 2016 and $100,000 the following year. Thus, her average income is $75,000 per year. However, her taxes for the two years are about $1,900 more than if she had earned, instead, $75,000 in both years. On an annual basis, her extra tax liability is almost $1,000, or 1.3 percent of her average annual income. A similar tax penalty on fluctuating income would occur in a case where her income had fallen from $100,000 in 2016 to $50,000 in 2017.

“The fluctuation penalty is a policy concern for reasons of fairness and the adverse incentives it may create for risk-taking activities, such as entrepreneurship, notes Wen.  “Further, we find the fluctuation penalty is most acute for lower-income persons.”

Prior to 1989, provisions in the tax code allowed taxpayers to smooth their taxable incomes by using an average of more than one year’s income as the basis for calculating the tax liability, notes Wen. They were removed to simplify the tax code and because the number of federal tax brackets had lowered from 10 to three.  However, recently the federal and provincial governments have added new tax brackets.  Taken together with the fact incomes have been less stable in Canada since the 1970s, particularly with the growth of the part-time work in the so-called sharing economy, this points to the need for tax reform.  “Reintroducing income-averaging provisions would help address the fluctuation penalty today,” he concludes.

Click here to view the full report.

The C.D. Howe Institute is an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies. Widely considered to be Canada's most influential think tank, the Institute is a trusted source of essential policy intelligence, distinguished by research that is nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review.

For more information contact: Jean‐François Wen, Professor of Economics, University of Calgary; Daniel V. Gordon, Professor of Economics, University of Calgary and University of Stavanger; or Alexandre Laurin, Director of Research, C. D. Howe Institute. Phone: 416-865-1904; Email: AMcBrien@cdhowe.org