Politics & Policy

Tax-Deductible Gym Memberships? Maybe If You Live in a City.

photo by P. A. Jensen

Republicans want to make gym memberships tax-deductible. That idea won’t work out for rural Americans.

Peter Suderman, in the libertarian magazine Reason, has highlighted how the GOP wants to incentivize exercise via the tax code. He outlines how the GOP wants to enable deductions of up to $1,000 a year for gym costs, including gym memberships, in its latest attempt to reform Health Savings Accounts.

That plan might sound great if you live near a gym. Many rural Americans do not.

People with gym memberships typically don’t live in tiny towns—they live in places big enough to support a gym. The GOP plan fails to acknowledge that, for geographic reasons, not all people have access to a gym. Many rural people could not take advantage of this seemingly fair tax break, meaning that the tax burden would shift systematically onto people in rural areas (even if by a minuscule amount).

The tax break is a bad idea for other reasons, too. Many people can, and do, stay fit by exercising without need for a gym. I used to run marathons. (Or, in the name of accuracy, I should say that I used to trudge marathons.) Even when I lived in an urban area, I never once went to a gym to train. Under the proposed plan, my chosen means of staying healthy would not give me a tax break. I would have gotten a tax break, however, if I had run on a treadmill at the gym—but not if I had run on a treadmill at home. One quickly begins to see the problem here.

Further, some people work out by working. Many people do manual labor for a living, and would therefore have much less of a need to get fit at a gym. If people got physically fit the old-fashioned way—for free!—they would be less likely to benefit from this tax cut for an incentive they did not need.

As Suderman says in his article, the people most likely to benefit from this bill are the gym owners. Regardless, this is bad policy. A tax cut meant to incentivize fitness should not use gym memberships as a crude proxy. Many Americans are fit despite never going to a gym, and many rural Americans stay fit despite not even having access to one. Going to the gym can be a good idea, but policymakers should consider rural Americans (and poor Americans, and American with home gyms, and hard-working Americans, and outdoor-marathoning Americans) before codifying gym membership in federal tax code.



P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.

He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.

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