Panel: Tax Time’s Golden Opportunity: How Policy Can Leverage Tax Time to Bolster Savings
(Social & Family Policy)

Friday, November 9, 2012: 1:00 PM-2:30 PM
Schaefer (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Organizers:  Michal Grinstein-Weiss, University of North Carolina
Moderators:  Ray Boshara, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Chairs:  Amy Brown, Ford Foundation

Lower-income households face pervasive economic insecurity coupled with a savings infrastructure that often fails to meet their needs. These constraints have only tightened in the wake of the Great Recession. Across the United States, nearly 40% of households are asset poor, at least 20% have zero or negative net worth, and over half would be unable to cope with an emergency expense of $2,000. At the same time, about 60 million Americans are unbanked or underbanked and the average household saved less than 4% of their disposable income during the first three quarters of 2011. In 2011, the average IRS tax refund was $2,913, almost a month’s take-home pay for a median-income household. Could tax time present a unique opportunity for low-income households to build savings and increase year-round financial stability? This panel considers several policy and practice options to leverage tax refunds in order to encourage families to start or bolster savings and connect them to wider financial supports. The first paper analyzes current opportunities presented through the free tax movement, identifies barriers in both policy and infrastructure, and recommends policy options to strengthen the reach and impact of these policies and programs. The second paper explores how mental accounting affects the intended use of tax refunds. Using data from two large free tax-preparation sites, the authors consider the roles of underestimation of tax refunds, prior intention to save part of the refund, and marketing of savings vehicles at the filing site in predicting a tax filer’s choice to open a savings product. The third and fourth papers present results from new experimental research of large national pilot programs. The Refund to Savings Initiative employs behavioral economic techniques embedded within the free online version of TurboTax tax preparation software to encourage tax-time saving by low-income households. The U.S. Treasury’s MyAccountCard pilot tests a number of product innovations provided at tax filing to increase low-income tax payers’ connection with banks. The analysis and findings presented in this panel carry implications for both policy and practice, answering questions about the potential of the tax-time opportunity to build financial stability. Specifically, these presentations provide policymakers and practitioners with evidence and recommendations of how to best construct scalable and easy-to-implement tax-time savings pathways that help families reach their financial goals.

The Evolution of the Tax Time Moment: Assets, Opportunities, and Barriers
David Rothstein, Policy Matters Ohio and Rachel Black, New America Foundation

Tax Refunds and Mental Accounting: Policy Implications of Over and Under Estimating Lump Sum Payments
J. Michael Collins, University of Wisconsin, Nilton Porto, University of Wisconsin, Madison and Justin Sydnor, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Refund to Savings: Exploring the Intersection of Behavioral Economics and Asset Building At Tax Time
Michal Grinstein-Weiss1, Dan Ariely2 and Clinton Key1, (1)University of North Carolina, (2)Duke University

Prepaid Cards At Tax Time: Findings From the Myaccountcard Pilot
Caroline Ratcliffe, The Urban Institute, William Congdon, The Brookings Institution and Signe-Mary McKernan, Urban Institute

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