When Did the Blind Get a Tax Break?

World War II, of course.

As the Friday deadline for filing federal income tax returns approaches, many Americans are poring over their IRS Form 1040s. On line 38a, they must check a box for a special deduction if they’re blind. (They can take another deduction on the same line if they’re over 65.) A Slate reader asks: When did the blind get a special tax break?

During World War II. Until the 1940s, personal exemptions from the income tax were so big that the tax burden was negligible for many Americans. But as the need for tax revenues increased during the war, the size of exemptions decreased; in 1942, a single filer could deduct just $500 from his or her income, as opposed to $1,000 in 1939 and $3,000 in 1916. The Revenue Act of 1943 relieved this growing burden in a number of ways; one was the creation of a $500 deduction for the blind—in gratitude, it was said, for work they’d done in the defense industries. The bill also provided so many tax breaks for industry that Franklin Roosevelt vetoed it, declaring it “not a tax bill, but a tax relief bill providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy.” The president was overruled by Congress, and the deduction for the blind became law.

Support for the blind had been growing. The Social Security Act of 1935 made a special provision for “Aid to the Blind,” the National Federation of the Blind was formed in 1940, and an influx of blind war veterans had heightened the concern. The tax breaks were intended to alleviate the higher costs of living that the blind face. Blind people were more likely to hire guides, readers, and taxis. And they often needed to live closer to their workplaces, which meant they frequently paid higher rents.

When Congress created a standard deduction to simplify filing in 1944, advocates worried that the blind would be at a disadvantage, since they could take their benefit only if they itemized their returns. Four years later, lawmakers made the benefit (which had been raised to $600) a tax exemption, available no matter how a blind person decided to file.

Why were the blind singled out for a special benefit? For one thing, blindness can be measured with relative ease. Federal guidelines are quite explicit: If you can’t see better than 20/200, or if your field of vision is less than 20 degrees, you can take the credit. Other conditions (like bad knees, for example) are more difficult to assess, although filers with such ailments can deduct “significant medical expenses”—currently defined as anything over 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income—from their income.

The special exemption for the blind has led to some resentment from people with other disabilities. In the 1970s, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye made several unsuccessful attempts to introduce a special exemption for the deaf.

In the mid-’80s, the Reagan tax reforms eliminated the special exemption for the blind and replaced it with a smaller deduction. This year, a single filer can add an extra $1,200 to their standard deduction for being blind or elderly, while a married filer can add $950. According to estimates from the Tax Policy Center, this provision will result in about $13.6 billion worth of excluded earnings.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Joseph Thorndike of the Tax History Project, Paul Caron of the University of Cincinnati, and Melanie Brunson of the American Council of the Blind. Thanks also to reader Tom Wanie for asking the question.