Panel Paper: Incompatible Pathways to Upward Mobility? a Qualitative Examination of the EITC and Higher Education

Friday, November 7, 2014 : 1:30 PM
Cochiti (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Laura Tach, Cornell University, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, University of Wisconsin Madison and Kathryn Edin, Johns Hopkins University
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a potentially powerful mechanism for upward mobility. To this end, researchers, policymakers, and journalists have argued that low-income parents can—and should—use EITC benefits to invest in human capital via spending on education. Using in-depth qualitative interviews with EITC recipients (N = 115), the present study details experiences with higher education among low-income working parents and describes their allocation of tax refund dollars. The authors find that most parents in the sample made some attempt to pursue higher education in the past, but their receipt of the EITC indicates that this investment was not enough to lift them out of the ranks of the working poor. The authors also find that the desire for upward mobility is strong but that the use of refund dollars for educational expenses is rare. The study uses qualitative data to explain the apparent disjuncture between EITC recipients’ interest in upward mobility and failure to use large tax refund checks for investments that build human capital. The authors focus on four explanations: recipients associate the EITC with work and parenting, not education; they find it difficult to invest in the future when faced with financial hardships in the present; they are wary about whether investing in higher education will actually pay off; and they experience a mismatch between the timing of benefit receipt—during tax season—and the timing of education expenses, which are paid prior to the school term.