Trump took a loss of $916 million dollars in 1995: this we know. He may have avoided paying income tax for the next 18 years: this we suspect. Pundits are focused on what Trump did or didn’t pay, took or didn’t take, gave or didn’t give. I want to know: where might his tax money have gone?
At the Center for Health Advancement at UCLA, which I co-direct with Dr. Jonathan Fielding, we look at how to make tax dollars work harder. We use economic modeling to estimate the human impact on health, education, and crime of various programs and policies that have been shown in rigorous academic studies to actually work. When I hear about nearly a billion dollars gone missing from the US Treasury, I know what could have been done with that money.
Start with Philadelphia, where decades of economic misfortune in many parts of the city have made it impossible to adequately maintain an aging housing stock, and where, partly as a result, one in every four children has asthma. A one-time investment of $81 million dollars would allow the City’s Public Health Department to expand its successful home remediation to homes of all 40,000 children in the city with asthma. The program deals with physical problems like mold or ancient carpeting and trains kids and parents to better manage their asthma. Extending this program to all children with asthma would prevent an estimated 80,000 trips to emergency department and 19,000 hospitalizations. And because asthma is one of the main impediments to school attendance, this program would prevent 342,000 missed school-days every year.
In San Antonio, Trump’s missing taxes could have fully funded an innovative program that makes physical education fun. This program provides rock-climbing equipment and a movable climbing wall, yoga instruction, Frisbee golf, scarf-juggling, and other creative and engaging ways to teach kids about keeping their bodies active. It also trains PE teachers and others to ensure that kids really get something out of their time. Had $44 million of Trump’s taxes gone here, the investment could expand this program to all K-5 public-school students in Bexar county for 18 years. Nearly a million children would experience a new PE, and the benefits would be enormous. Over the ensuing 25 years, the program would prevent over 2,000 cases of diabetes and over 3,000 cases of heart disease. An estimated 258 lives would be saved as a result of this investment. Even more surprising, because getting kids’ blood moving is good for their brains, the program would also increase test scores, by about 11% for reading and 12% for math.
Another great use of Trump’s missing tax dollars would be functional family therapy, a program that works with juvenile offenders and their families to improve relationships and help overcome adolescent behavior problems. Delivering this proven intervention to all juvenile offenders in Houston for 18 years would cost an estimated $70 million, and would not only prevent an over 10,000 crimes, but would also help turn life around for these kids. We’ve estimated that this program would, over 18 years, prevent 3,762 kids from becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, and would help 774 to graduate from high school when they otherwise would not.
Another program Trump’s dollars might have supported would have an even greater impact on education, albeit at greater cost. The high-school mentoring program called Talent Search could be offered to all of the roughly 90,000 students in tenth grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District for two years for a cost of $630 million. This program has been proven to raise the rates of high-school graduation by 11 percentage points, about half of what’s required to bring the District up to 100% graduation.
Together, all these investments together would cost just $826 million—10% less than Trump’s missing taxes. They would, if implemented, bring in $4.7 billion dollars in net new tax revenue or reduced expenses for incarceration and income-support, for a government return on investment of $4.7 for every $1 spent. Trump’s missing tax dollars wouldn’t simply help American’s health and well-being, they would make the U.S. money. This makes paying taxes smart.
There is no direct connection from Trump’s tax avoidance to the starvation of public programs. If the Treasury had taken in an extra $50 million every year, Congress might not have chosen to spend an extra $50 million each year. Yet ultimately, the numbers do have to add up. And although the causality is not direct, there is benefit to dwelling on the $916 million that Trump did not pay and the 258 lives that were not saved, the 9,882 crimes that were not prevented, and the 20,000 high-schoolers who did not graduate.
When Donald Trump says that he is just being smart by avoiding income taxes, he is thinking only of his business, and only of himself. This makes him greedy, but it also makes him, from the perspective of the American collective, a terrible investor.
All told, Trump’s missing millions don’t only include the dollars he didn’t direct to the U.S. Treasury, but the millions of children he didn’t aid, health problems he didn’t help solve, adolescents he didn’t work to keep out of prison, schools he didn’t keep open, and families he didn’t nurture. Think of his missing dollars as millions of lost opportunities.