COLUMBIA, Md. — The word “equality” carries special meaning in this planned community, nestled in the corridor between Baltimore and Washington.
Subsidized apartment complexes and tidy townhouses coexist with single-family colonials and split- levels, and racial, socio-economic and religious diversity is embedded in the fabric. Columbia’s founding father created the town in 1967 with hopes that all types of workers could afford to live there, “from the company janitor to the company president.”
It is through this lens that residents here are viewing the tax plan that Congress finalized this week. Even as people here try to assess how the new code will affect them individually, many are expressing greater concerns about the “knock-on” or secondary effects of the plan, which down the line could reduce or eliminate spending in some areas to pay for tax breaks for businesses and the wealthiest Americans.
In Columbia, that could mean cuts to the well-regarded public schools and aid programs for the most vulnerable residents, changes that would further chip away at the egalitarian pillars on which the town was built.
“It is definitely going to have some implications for us as a family, and yet we are solidly middle class,” said Maureen Harris as she sat with her husband, Bill, in the dining room of the house they share with their two teenage daughters.
“I am not worried that we won’t be able to pay our mortgage or anything like that,” said Mr. Harris, who serves as the executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. “But to me, it’s just immoral. We are on this trajectory of every person for themselves. And the bill leaves a whole heck of a lot of people behind.”
President Trump has advertised the new plan as a “massive tax cut” for working and middle-class Americans, while Republican leaders in Congress promise it will create jobs and simplify the tax code. At the same time, the plan is expected to add at least $1 trillion to the deficit and increase health insurance premiums; the number of uninsured people could rise by millions.
And Republican lawmakers have already signaled that they will call for cuts to popular entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
To a retiree like Sharonlee Vogel, who lives in the Long Reach village in Columbia, those types of changes are distressing. She had personal concerns — including the curtailed tax break on state and local taxes — but she was more upset about how it would hurt middle- and lower-income families and the fraying safety net.
Indeed, the original vision of James Rouse — who established the town after buying 14,000 acres — is less evident today. Columbia is an affluent community in the relatively flush Howard County, which often ranks atop the list of the richest counties in America: the median income exceeds $113,000, and taxes are high.
But a widening income gap has touched Columbia, too, and some residents are feeling the squeeze. And many locals fear the tax bill’s ripple effects may accelerate that divide, hurting the individuals and families it claims to help.
Mr. Harris shook his head as he sat next to his wife in their dining room. “My accountant says this tax bill is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said.
To a casual passer-by, the Howard County Food Bank in Columbia is almost indistinguishable from a miniature grocery store. Locals push grocery carts down the small aisles of canned goods, baby food, fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
Quandra Hodge, a 47-year-old single mother with two autistic sons, said she used the food bank to tide her family over when necessary. Her sons receive Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that pays benefits to disabled adults and children, and she receives disability and child support. “I am dealing with two children with special needs and no help from family,” she said. “I am grateful for the food bank.”
But Bita Dayhoff, president of the nonprofit Community Action Council of Howard County — which runs the food bank — is worried that the tax bill will indirectly strain her group and others like it. Community Action also provides 35,000 lower-income residents with housing and energy assistance, as well as education programs, and receives funding from all levels of government, as well as from the private sector and foundations.
“Our biggest concern is the marginalization of safety net support programs for families,” she said, adding that food and housing for the needy might be compromised “because less money will be trickling down from the federal government after the massive tax cut.”
At Bridges to Housing Stability, another nonprofit organization in Columbia, the case workers help low-income families find affordable housing while assisting others who are at risk of eviction. The group also helps people find jobs, budget their money and improve their credit, so they can live with some degree of stability.
Kelly McLaughlin, executive director at Bridges, said that although the child tax credit might help some of their clients in the short term, she was more worried about how the bill could impact Bridges’ funding, the majority of which comes from state and county grants, which flow from the federal government.
“If that happened,’’ she said, “ it would severely impact our ability to stabilize families in homes, which has a ripple effect on the entire community at large.”
Those are not the kinds of personal anxieties the tax bill presents to Bill and Maureen Harris, who met in the sixth grade in Silver Spring, Md., and married after receiving a pair of Ivy League degrees. They moved to Columbia because it was known to embrace biracial families.
The Harris’s will no longer be permitted to deduct all of their state and local taxes, including their property taxes, but they don’t expect to be especially harmed by the new rules. They are more worried about the bill’s potential broader effects, particularly if the tax cuts leave less federal money for state programs and public schools.
State governments may raise taxes to fill in the gaps, but that becomes even more burdensome for taxpayers — especially for many who itemize their tax returns — because the deductibility of state and local income taxes would be capped.
In Howard County, for example, roughly 56 percent of households itemized their deductions in 2015, the latest year for which federal tax data is available, and virtually all of those households took the state and local tax deduction.
If the bill becomes law, fewer people are expected to itemize because the standard deduction will be doubled. But that could have another knock-on effect: people who do not itemize may cut back on their charitable contributions, which are tax-deductible.
Ms. Harris said a significant share of her congregation’s income comes from tax-deductible donations. “If that benefit goes away, that is less money for the church,” she said. “What happens to my salary, let alone the people who are falling through the cracks who are getting support through our church?”
Sitting in a small, tightly packed high school office where she works as an intern, Sharon Shaw, a 48-year-old single woman, is on track to receive her master’s degree this month so she can work as a guidance counselor. For 15 years, she has held two jobs — one as a secretary at a local high school, the other as an administrative aide at Howard Community College one night a week.
The tax bill would continue to let her deduct the interest on the $20,000 she has in graduate school loans, but she had deeper worries about how the changes might affect to other areas, like affordable housing and education.
“I like to be optimistic and positive, but it is very uncertain where things are going to go financially for people in my situation,” she said. “If there is not enough funding going into education that is being distributed to the states, they cannot hire the people they need to.”
Colleen Morris, a Columbia resident and the president of the Howard County Education Association, was recently presiding over a board meeting with other educators. They joked about how teaching might be the only profession where you steal supplies from home to take to the workplace — the reverse of the norm — yet Congress was considering eliminating a deduction for teachers who provide classroom supplies (it was ultimately saved).
The teachers went on to talk about the bill’s broader implications.
“In our community, and especially as educators, we talk a lot about equity — how to make sure that every student and every family has a fair shot at success,” she said. “This bill will make it harder for us to have a level playing field.”