Panel Paper: Tax Code Knowledge and Behavioral Responses Among EITC Recipients: Policy Insights From Qualitative Data

Friday, November 8, 2013 : 2:15 PM
3017 Monroe (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Laura Tach, Policy Analysis & Managmenet; Cornell University and Sarah Halpern-Meekin, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
We build on the robust quantitative literature on behavioral responses to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) by using in-depth qualitative interviews with 115 EITC recipients to examine how they understand and respond to its incentive structures regarding earnings, marriage, and childbearing. We find that respondents do not understand the EITC separately from their total tax refund and, as a result, are unable to accurately predict how their EITC refund would change if they altered their labor supply or marital status. Incentives for childbearing are better understood, but are not specific to the EITC; rather, parents respond to a combination of tax deductions and credits as a whole. Even though respondents would like to maximize their refunds, most cannot or would not alter their behavior due to large structural constraints they face in the labor and marriage markets. Rather than adjust work hours, defer marriage, or have additional children, respondents exhibit a different type of behavioral response to the incentive structure of the EITC: they alter their tax filing status in order to maximize their refunds. They routinely claim zero exemptions and deductions on their W-4s, file their tax returns as head of household rather than as married, and divide children among the tax returns of multiple caregivers. While some of these behaviors qualify as tax noncompliance, they emerge because the intricacies of the tax code conflict with the complexity and fluidity of finances in low-income households.