Brooklyn Law Review


Participating in the tax system gives rise to what could be enormously powerful rights for poor people. The tax system has become one of the main tools the United States uses to fight poverty. A thick bundle of tax rights accompanies the many tax antipoverty programs. This paper is the first to recognize the potentially substantial rights that poor people have through the tax code. For decades, poverty law advocates and scholars have lamented the decline of the “welfare rights” that poor people once had in their benefits. No one has yet recognized that in fact poor people still have substantial rights in the tax code. These “new welfare rights” are not rights that lawmakers are attempting to weaken but rights that they are strengthening. However, lawyers and lawmakers have yet to unlock the potential that tax rights have to improve the lives of poor people. This paper discusses two methods by which this can happen. First, poverty lawyers can make rights-based legal claims on behalf of their clients, several of which this paper will discuss. Second, lawmakers can use rights-based ideas to help tax administration protect poor taxpayers’ rights more effectively. This paper presents the results of a survey experiment that suggests just one way to redesign existing programs to protect poor taxpayers’ rights.