Topic: Taxes and transfers

with Elizabeth Linos, Allen Prohofsky, Aparna Ramesh, and Matt Unrath.

American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 14(4).
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The Earned Income Tax Credit distributes more than $60 billion to over 20 million low-income families annually. Nevertheless, an estimated one-fifth of eligible households do not claim it. We ran six preregistered, large-scale field experiments with 1 million observations to test whether “nudges” could increase EITC take-up. Despite varying the content, design, messenger, and mode of our messages, we find no evidence that they affected households’ likelihood of filing a tax return or claiming the credit. We conclude that even the most behaviorally informed low-touch outreach efforts cannot overcome the barriers faced by low-income households who do not file returns.

with Hilary Hoynes.

Annual Review of Economics 11.
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We discuss the potential role of universal basic incomes (UBIs) in advanced countries. A feature of advanced economies that distinguishes them from developing countries is the existence of well-developed, if often incomplete, safety nets. We develop a framework for describing transfer programs that is flexible enough to encompass most existing programs as well as UBIs, and we use this framework to compare various UBIs to the existing constellation of programs in the United States. A UBI would direct much larger shares of transfers to childless, nonelderly, nondisabled households than existing programs, and much more to middle-income rather than poor households. A UBI large enough to increase transfers to low-income families would be enormously expensive. We review the labor supply literature for evidence on the likely impacts of a UBI. We argue that the ongoing UBI pilot studies will do little to resolve the major outstanding questions.

with Hilary Hoynes and Krista Ruffini

In The 51%: Driving Growth through Women’s Economic Participation, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach & Ryan Nunn, eds., The Hamilton Project/Brookings Institution.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable tax credit that promotes work. Research has shown that it also reduces poverty and improves health and education outcomes. The maximum credit for families with two or fewer children has remained flat in inflation-adjusted terms since 1996. Over the same period, earnings prospects have stagnated or diminished for many Americans, and prime-age employment rates have fallen. This paper proposes to build on the successes of the EITC with a ten percent acrossthe-board increase in the federal credit. This expansion would provide a meaningful offset to stagnating real wages, encourage more people to enter employment, lift approximately 600,000 individuals out of poverty, and improve health and education outcomes for millions of children.

with Robert G. Valletta

Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 36 (4).
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Many Unemployment Insurance (UI) recipients do not find new jobs before exhausting their benefits, even when benefits are extended during recessions. Using Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) panel data covering the 2001 and 2007 to 2009 recessions and their aftermaths, we identify individuals whose jobless spells outlasted their UI benefits (exhaustees) and examine household income, program participation, and health-related outcomes during the six months following UI exhaustion. For the average exhaustee, the loss of UI benefits is only slightly offset by increased participation in other safety net programs (e.g., food stamps), and family poverty rates rise substantially. Self-reported disability also rises following UI exhaustion. These patterns do not vary dramatically across household demographic groups, broad income level prior to job loss, or the two business cycles. The results highlight the unique, important role of UI in the U.S. social safety net.

with Hilary Hoynes

In The Economics of Tax Policy, Alan J. Auerbach and Kent Smetters, eds., Oxford University Press.

In this paper, we review the most prominent provision of the federal income tax code that targets low-income tax filers, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), as well as the structurally similar Child Tax Credit (CTC). We frame the paper around what we see as the programs’ goals: distributional, promoting work, and limiting administrative and compliance costs. We review what is known about program impacts and distributional consequences under current law, drawing on simulations from the Tax Policy Center. We conclude that the EITC is quite successful in meeting its three goals. In contrast, most of the benefits of the CTC go to higher income households. In addition to analyzing current law, we assess possible reforms that would reach groups – for the EITC, those without children; for the CTC, those with very low earnings – who are largely missed under current policy.

with Andreas Mueller and Till von Wachter

Journal of Labor Economics 34 (S1, pt. 2).
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Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards rise during recessions. If marginal applicants are able to work but unable to find jobs, countercyclical Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefit extensions may reduce SSDI uptake. Exploiting UI extensions in the Great Recession as a source of variation, we find no indication that expiration of UI benefits causes SSDI applications and can rule out effects of meaningful magnitude. A supplementary analysis finds little overlap between the two programs’ recipient populations: only 28% of SSDI awardees had any labor force attachment in the prior calendar year, and of those, only 4% received UI.

with Austin Nichols

In Economics of Means-Tested Transfer Programs in the United States, Volume I, Robert A. Moffitt, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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with Henry S. Farber and Robert G. Valletta

American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 105(5).
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With discussant comments from Lisa B. Kahn and Stephanie Aaronson.

Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.
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More than 2 years after the official end of the Great Recession, the labor market remains historically weak. One candidate explanation is supply-side effects driven by dramatic expansions of unemployment insurance (UI) benefit durations, to as long as 99 weeks. This paper investigates the effect of these extensions on job search and reemployment. I use the longitudinal structure of the Current Population Survey to construct unemployment exit hazards that vary across states, over time, and between individuals with differing unemployment durations. I then use these hazards to explore a variety of comparisons intended to distinguish the effects of UI extensions from other determinants of employment outcomes. The various specifications yield quite similar results. UI extensions had significant but small negative effects on the probability that the eligible unemployed would exit unemployment. These effects are concentrated among the long-term unemployed. The estimates imply that UI extensions raised the unemployment rate in early 2011 by only about 0.1 to 0.5 percentage point, much less than implied by previous analyses, with at least half of this effect attributable to reduced labor force exit among the unemployed rather than to the changes in reemployment rates that are of greater policy concern.

The EITC is intended to encourage work. But EITC-induced increases in labor supply may drive wages down. I simulate the economic incidence of the EITC. In each scenario that I consider, a large portion of low-income single mothers’ EITC payments is captured by employers through reduced wages. Workers who are EITC ineligible also see wage declines. By contrast, a traditional Negative Income Tax (NIT) discourages work, and so induces large transfers from employers to their workers. With my preferred parameters, $1 in EITC spending increases after-tax incomes by $0.73, while $1 spent on the NIT yields $1.39. (JEL H22H23H24H31J22)