Include All Income That U.S. Citizens Earn Abroad in Taxable Income

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

(Billions of dollars) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2014-2018 2014-2023
Change in Revenues 2.8 6.2 7.2 8.2 8.9 9.5 10.3 11.0 11.7 12.7 33.3 88.5

Source: Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Note: This option would take effect in January 2014. The estimates include the effects on outlays resulting from changes in refundable tax credits.

U.S. citizens who live in other countries must file an individual U.S. tax return each year, but several provisions of the tax code reduce their U.S. tax liability. First, those citizens may exclude from taxation some of the income they earn abroad: up to $97,600 for single filers and up to $195,200 for joint filers in calendar year 2013. (Those amounts are adjusted, or indexed, for inflation.) Second, under certain circumstances, U.S. citizens living abroad can also claim an exclusion or deduction for any allowance their employers provide for housing in a foreign country. Those two tax provisions—combined with the personal exemptions and deductions available to taxpayers living in either the United States or other countries—mean that U.S. citizens who reside abroad and earn over $100,000 (or, in the case of married U.S. citizens living abroad, over $200,000) may not incur any U.S. income tax liability, even if they pay no taxes to the country in which they live. Third, if those citizens pay taxes to the country in which they live, they can receive a credit on their U.S. taxes for foreign taxes paid on any income above the U.S. exclusion amount. As a result, most U.S. tax filers who live abroad do not have any U.S. tax liability.

This option would retain the credit for taxes paid to foreign governments but would require U.S. citizens living overseas to include all of the income they earned abroad, including housing allowances, in their adjusted gross income. (Adjusted gross income includes income from all sources not specifically excluded by the tax code, minus certain deductions.) As a result, U.S. citizens living in countries with lower tax rates than those in the United States would tend to owe more—and, in some cases, potentially much more—in U.S. taxes than under current law, while U.S. citizens residing in countries with higher tax rates would generally continue not to owe U.S. taxes on their earned income. The staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that implementing such a change would increase revenues by $89 billion over the 2014–2023 period.

One rationale for eliminating the partial exclusion for foreign earnings is related to a certain concept of equity—that U.S. citizens with comparable income should incur similar tax liabilities, regardless of where they live. Under the option, people could not move to low-tax foreign countries to escape U.S. tax liability while retaining the benefits of U.S. citizenship. (To discourage U.S. citizens from moving abroad to avoid taxes, the Heroes Earnings Assistance and Relief Tax Act of 2008 instituted a significant “expatriation tax” on the net worth of wealthy taxpayers who renounce their U.S. citizenship for any reason.)

However, the United States is the only member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that taxes the income of its citizens on a worldwide basis; therefore, eliminating the exemption for income earned abroad would move the United States further out of alignment with the rest of the world in terms of the tax treatment of foreign-earned income. Another argument for not making this change is that U.S. citizens who live in other countries do not receive all of the same services from the U.S. government that are available domestically, and they may receive fewer services from the low-tax countries in which they reside.