Tax Code Knowledge and Behavioral Responses Among EITC Recipients: Policy Insights from Qualitative Data

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Abstract

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 consider their tax refund as a whole, without differentiating the portion from the EITC; as a result, they cannot 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. Respondents would like to maximize their refunds, but most cannot or would not alter their behavior due to 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. Although 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 and family life in low-income households.

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