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Are household surveys like tax forms: evidence from income underreporting of the self-employed

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  • Erik Hurst
  • Geng Li
  • Benjamin Pugsley

Abstract

There is a large literature showing that the self-employed underreport their income to tax authorities. In this paper, we quantify the extent to which the self-employed also systematically underreport their income in U.S. household surveys. To do so, we use the Engel curve describing the relationship between income and expenditures of wage and salary workers to infer the actual income, and thus the reporting gap, of the self-employed based on their reported expenditures. We find that the self-employed underreport their income by about 30 percent. This result is remarkably robust across data sources and alternative model specifications. Failing to account for such income underreporting leads to biased conclusions. We document this bias in existing measures of earnings differentials, wealth differentials, precautionary savings, lifecycle earnings profiles, and earnings variation across MSAs. Our results show that it is naive for researchers to take it for granted that individuals will provide unbiased information to household surveys given their demonstrated tendency of providing distorted reports of the same information to other administrative sources.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.) in its series Finance and Economics Discussion Series with number 2011-06.

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Date of creation: 2011
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedgfe:2011-06

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Keywords: Households ; Self-employed ; Income ; Disclosure of information;

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References

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  1. Rebecca M. Blank & Kerwin Kofi Charles & James M. Sallee, 2009. "A Cautionary Tale about the Use of Administrative Data: Evidence from Age of Marriage Laws," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 1(2), pages 128-49, April.
  2. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2007. "Life-Cycle Prices and Production," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 97(5), pages 1533-1559, December.
  3. Gorodnichenko, Yuriy & Martinez-Vazquez, Jorge & Peter, Klara Sabirianova, 2007. "Myth and Reality of Flat Tax Reform: Micro Estimates of Tax Evasion Response and Welfare Effects in Russia," IZA Discussion Papers 3267, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  4. John Fitzgerald & Peter Gottschalk & Robert Moffitt, 1997. "An Analysis of Sample Attrition in Panel Data: The Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics," Boston College Working Papers in Economics 394, Boston College Department of Economics.
  5. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2008. "Deconstructing Lifecycle Expenditure," Working Papers wp173, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
  6. Richard Blundell & Martin Browning & Costas Meghir, 1993. "Consumer demand and the life-cycle allocation of household expenditures," IFS Working Papers W93/11, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  7. Gourinchas, P.O. & Parker, J.A., 1997. "Consumption Over the Life Cycle," Working papers 9722, Wisconsin Madison - Social Systems.
  8. Bruce D. Meyer & Wallace K. C. Mok & James X. Sullivan, 2009. "The Under-Reporting of Transfers in Household Surveys: Its Nature and Consequences," Working Papers 0903, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  9. Pissarides, Christopher A. & Weber, Guglielmo, 1989. "An expenditure-based estimate of Britain's black economy," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 39(1), pages 17-32, June.
  10. Clotfelter, Charles T, 1983. "Tax Evasion and Tax Rates: An Analysis of Individual Returns," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 65(3), pages 363-73, August.
  11. Erik Hurst & Annamaria Lusardi, 2004. "Liquidity Constraints, Household Wealth, and Entrepreneurship," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(2), pages 319-347, April.
  12. James Andreoni & Brian Erard & Jonathan Feinstein, 1998. "Tax Compliance," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 36(2), pages 818-860, June.
  13. Naomi E. Feldman & Joel Slemrod, 2007. "Estimating tax noncompliance with evidence from unaudited tax returns," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 117(518), pages 327-352, 03.
  14. Marco Cagetti & Mariacristina De Nardi, 2003. "Entrepreneurship, frictions, and wealth," Staff Report 322, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
  15. William M. Gentry & R. Glenn Hubbard, 2000. "Entrepreneurship and Household Saving," NBER Working Papers 7894, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  16. John Gibson & Bonggeun Kim & Chul Chung, 2008. "Using Panel Data to Exactly Estimate Under-Reporting by the Self-Employed," Working Papers in Economics 08/15, University of Waikato, Department of Economics.
  17. Steven D. Levitt & John A. List, 2009. "Was there Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments," NBER Working Papers 15016, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  18. Edvard Johansson, 2005. "An estimate of self-employment income underreporting in Finland," Nordic Journal of Political Economy, Nordic Journal of Political Economy, vol. 31, pages 99-109.
  19. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2004. "Consumption vs. Expenditure," NBER Working Papers 10307, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  20. Bonggeun Kim & John Gibson & Chul Chung, 2009. "Using Panel Data to Exactly Estimate Income Under-Reporting by the Self Employed," Labor Economics Working Papers 22996, East Asian Bureau of Economic Research.
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