Location-based programs that provide tax credits to firms and investors that locate in particular areas are popular among politicians of both parties. Democrats tend to support them because they are meant to revitalize poorer or rural areas. In a recent speech about the economy , presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton spoke favorably about two of them : the New Markets Tax Credit Program and Empowerment Zones.
Some Republicans also support such programs , which they view as being a pro-business way to help low-income communities. However, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent tax reform blueprint generally disapproves of tax credit programs .
Due to the volume of location-based programs and their relatively narrow objectives, many taxpayers are unfamiliar with their differences or unaware that they even exist. This is to be expected since most people are never directly affected by one. In this post I explain one that Hillary Clinton recently spoke about, the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program .
The NMTC program was created in 2000 as part of the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act. It is managed by the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which is a division of the U.S. Treasury Department.
The NMTC program provides both new and established businesses with a tax credit that can be used to offset the costs of new capital investment or hiring new workers. The goal is to increase investment in low income communities (LIC) in order to improve the economic outcomes of residents.
Even though the program was started in 2000, no funds were issued to investors until 2003 (although some funds were allocated to the program in 2001 and 2002). Since 2001 over $43 billion has been allocated  to the program. The figure below shows the allocations by year, amount issued to investors, and the total amount allocated from 2001 – 2014 (orange bar, uses right axis).
Practically all of the allocated funds from 2001 to 2012 have been issued to investors. A little over $250 million remains from 2013 and $1.3 billion from 2014. As the figure makes clear, this program controls a non-trivial amount of money.
The types of projects funded by the NMTC program can be seen in the figure below. The data for this figure comes from a 2013 Urban Institute report .
So what have taxpayers gotten for their money? The program’s ‘fact sheet’  asserts that since 2003 the program has
“…created or retained an estimated 197,585 jobs. It has also supported the construction of 32.4 million square feet of manufacturing space, 74.8 million square feet of office space, and 57.5 million square feet of retail space.”
Like many government program administrators, those running the NMTC program seem to confuse outputs with outcomes. Presumably the goal of the NMTC program is not to build office space, which is a trivial achievement, but to improve the lives of the people living in low income communities. In fact, the program’s fact sheet also states that
“Investments made through the NMTC Program are used to finance businesses, breathing new life into neglected, underserved low-income communities.”
What really matters is whether the program has succeeded at “breathing new life” into LICs. To answer this more complicated question one needs to examine the actual economic outcomes in areas receiving the credits in order to determine whether they have improved relative to areas that haven’t received the credits. Such an exercise is not the same thing as simply reporting the amount of new office space.
That being said, even the simpler task of measuring new office space or counting new jobs is harder than it first appears. It’s important for program evaluators and the taxpayers who fund the program to be aware of the reasons that either result could be speciously assigned to the tax credit.
First, the office space or jobs might have been added regardless of the tax credit. Firms choose locations for a variety of reasons and it’s possible that a particular firm would locate in a particular low income community regardless of the availability of a tax credit. This could happen for economic reasons—the firm is attracted by the low price of space or the location is near an important supplier—or the location has sentimental value e.g. the firm owner is from the neighborhood.
A second reason is that the firms that locate or expand in the community might do so at the expense of other firms that would have located there absent the tax credit. For example, suppose the tax credit attracts a hotel owner who due to the credit finds it worthwhile to build a hotel in the neighborhood, and that this prevents a retail store owner from locating on the same plot of land, even though she would have done so without a credit.
The tax credit may also mistakenly appear to be beneficial if all it does is reallocate investment from one community to another. Not all communities are eligible for these tax credits. If a firm was going to locate in a neighboring community that wasn’t eligible but then switched to the eligible community upon finding out about the tax credit then no new investment was created in the city, it was simply shifted around. In this scenario one community benefits at the expense of another due to the availability of the tax credit.
A new study examines the NMTC program  in order to determine whether it has resulted in new employment or new businesses in eligible communities. It uses census tract data from 2002 – 2006. In order to qualify for NMTCs, a census tract’s median family income must be 80% or less of its state’s median family income or the poverty rate of the tract must be over 20%. (There are two other population criteria that were added in 2004, but according to the study 98% qualify due to the income or poverty criterion.)
The authors use the median income ratio of 0.8 to separate census tracts into a qualifying and non-qualifying group, and then compare tracts that are close to and on either side of the 0.8 cutoff. The economic outcomes they examine are employment at new firms, number of new firms, and new employment at existing firms.
They find that there was less new employment at new firms in NMTC eligible tracts in the transportation and wholesale industries but more new employment in the retail industry. Figure 2 shows that retail received a relatively large portion of the tax credits. This result shows that the tax credits helped new retail firms add workers relative to firms in transportation and manufacturing in eligible census tracts.
The authors note that the magnitude of the effects are small—a 0.2% increase in new retail employment and a 0.12% and 0.41% decrease in new transportation and wholesale employment respectively. Thus the program had a limited impact during the 2002 – 2006 period according to this measure, despite the fact that nearly $8 billion was granted to investors from 2002 – 2005.
The authors find a similar result when examining new firms: Retail firms located in the NMTC eligible tracts while services and wholesale firms did not. Together these two results are evidence that the NMTC does not benefit firms in all industries equally since it causes firms in different industries to locate in different tracts. The latter result also supports the idea that firms that benefit most from the tax credit crowd out other types of firms, similar to the earlier hotel and retail store example.
Finally, the authors examined new employment at existing firms. This result is more favorable to the program—an 8.8% increase in new employment at existing manufacturing firms and a 10.4% increase at retail firms. Thus NMTCs appear to have been primarily used to expand existing operations.
But while there is evidence that the tax credit slightly increased employment, the authors note that due to the limitations of their data they are unable to conclude whether the gains in new employment or firms was due to a re-allocation of economic activity from non-eligible to eligible census tracts or to actual new economic activity that only occurred because of the program. Thus even the small effects identified by the authors cannot be conclusively considered net new economic activity generated by the NMTC program. Instead, the NMTC program may have just moved economic activity from one community to another.
The mixed results of this recent study combined with the inability to conclusively assign them to the NMTC program cast doubt on the programs overall effectiveness. Additionally, the size of the effects are quite small. Thus even if the effects are positive once crowding out and reallocation are taken into account, the benefits still may fall short of the $43.5 billion cost of the program (which doesn’t include the program’s administrative costs).
An alternative to location-based tax credit programs is to lower tax rates on businesses and investment across the board. This would remove the distortions that are inherent in location-based programs that favor some areas and businesses over others. It would also reduce the uncertainty that surrounds the renewal and management of the programs. Attempts to help specific places are often unsuccessful  and give residents of such places false hope that community revitalization is right around the corner.
Tax credits, despite their good intentions, often fail to deliver the promised benefits. The alternative—low, stable tax rates that apply to all firms—helps create a business climate that is conducive to long-term planning and investment, which leads to better economic outcomes.