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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 systematically underreport their income to 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. Aside from transportation expenditures, we find little evidence that the self employed misreport their expenditures to household surveys. We show that failing to account for such income underreporting leads to biased conclusions when comparing the earnings and saving behavior between the self employed and other workers as well as biased estimates of the importance of precautionary savings, the shape of lifecycle earnings profiles, and the magnitude of earnings differences across MSAs. Finally, our results show that it is naive for researchers to take it for granted that individuals will provide unbiased information to household surveys when they are simultaneously providing distorted information to other administrative sources.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 16527.

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Date of creation: Nov 2010
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16527

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  1. 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.
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Cited by:
  1. Lichard, Tomáš & Hanousek, Jan & Filer, Randall K., 2012. "Measuring the Shadow Economy: Endogenous Switching Regression with Unobserved Separation," IZA Discussion Papers 6901, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  2. Merike Kukk & Karsten Staehr, 2013. "Income underreporting by households with business income. Evidence from Estonia," Bank of Estonia Working Papers wp2013-6, Bank of Estonia, revised 26 Jul 2013.
  3. Henrekson, Magnus & Sanandaji, Tino, 2013. "Small Business Activity Does not Measure Entrepreneurship," Working Paper Series 959, Research Institute of Industrial Economics, revised 26 Jan 2014.
  4. Diego Martínez López, 2011. "How different are the Spanish self-employed workers by underreporting their incomes?," Working Papers. Serie EC 2011-09, Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Económicas, S.A. (Ivie).
  5. Ambrosius, Christian, 2011. "Are Remittances a 'Catalyst' for Financial Access? Evidence from Mexico," Proceedings of the German Development Economics Conference, Berlin 2011 5, Verein für Socialpolitik, Research Committee Development Economics.
  6. Michael W.L. Elsby & Bart Hobijn & Aysegül Sahin, 2013. "The decline of the U.S. labor share," Working Paper Series 2013-27, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
  7. Frías, Judith A & Kumler, Todd & Verhoogen, Eric A, 2013. "Enlisting Employees in Improving Payroll-Tax Compliance: Evidence from Mexico," CEPR Discussion Papers 9622, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  8. Ross Levine & Yona Rubinstein, 2013. "Smart and Illicit: Who Becomes an Entrepreneur and Does it Pay?," NBER Working Papers 19276, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Joel Slemrod & Thor Olav Thoresen & Erlend Eide Bø, 2013. "Taxes on the Internet: Deterrence Effects of Public Disclosure," CESifo Working Paper Series 4107, CESifo Group Munich.
  10. Joel Slemrod & Caroline Weber, 2012. "Evidence of the invisible: toward a credibility revolution in the empirical analysis of tax evasion and the informal economy," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer, vol. 19(1), pages 25-53, February.
  11. Jason DeBacker & Bradley Heim & Vasia Panousi & Shanthi Ramnath & Ivan Vidangos, 2012. "The properties of income risk in privately held businesses," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2012-69, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  12. Åstebro, Thomas & Chen, Jing, 2014. "The entrepreneurial earnings puzzle: Mismeasurement or real?," Journal of Business Venturing, Elsevier, vol. 29(1), pages 88-105.
  13. Renata Narita, 2013. "Self Employment in Developing Countries: a Search-Equilibrium Approach," Working Papers, Department of Economics 2013_21, University of São Paulo (FEA-USP).
  14. Matthew Rutledge, 2011. "Long-Run Earnings Volatility and Health Insurance Coverage: Evidence from the SIPP Gold Standard File," Working Papers 11-35, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  15. Lechmann, Daniel S. J., 2013. "Can working conditions explain the return-to-entrepreneurship puzzle?," Discussion Papers 86, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Chair of Labour and Regional Economics.
  16. Diego Martinez-Lopez, 2013. "The underreporting of income by self-employed workers in Spain," SERIEs, Spanish Economic Association, vol. 4(4), pages 353-371, November.
  17. Geng Li, 2012. "Gamblers as personal finance activists," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2012-18, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  18. Zsofia Barany, 2011. "Income inequality and the progressivity of taxes in a coalition formation model," Sciences Po publications info:hdl:2441/eu4vqp9ompq, Sciences Po.
  19. Fossen, Frank & Büttner, Tobias, 2013. "The returns to education for opportunity entrepreneurs, necessity entrepreneurs, and paid employees," Annual Conference 2013 (Duesseldorf): Competition Policy and Regulation in a Global Economic Order 79691, Verein für Socialpolitik / German Economic Association.

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