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Inertia and Overwithholding: Explaining the Prevalence of Income Tax Refunds

Listed author(s):
  • Damon Jones

Over three-quarters of US taxpayers receive income tax refunds, which are effectively zero-interest loans to the government. Previous explanations include precautionary and/or forced savings motives. I present evidence on a third explanation: inertia. I find that following a change in tax liability, prepayments are only adjusted by 29 percent of the tax change after one year and 61 percent after three years. Adjustment increases with income and experience, and for EITC recipients, I rule out adjustment greater than 2 percent. Thus, policies affecting default-withholding rules are no longer neutral decisions, but rather, may affect consumption smoothing, particularly for low-income taxpayers. (JEL D14, H24, K34)

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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

Volume (Year): 4 (2012)
Issue (Month): 1 (February)
Pages: 158-185

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Handle: RePEc:aea:aejpol:v:4:y:2012:i:1:p:158-85
Note: DOI: 10.1257/pol.4.1.158
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  1. Claudia R. Sahm & Matthew D. Shapiro & Joel Slemrod, 2012. "Check in the Mail or More in the Paycheck: Does the Effectiveness of Fiscal Stimulus Depend on How It Is Delivered?," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 4(3), pages 216-250, August.
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  6. Damon Jones, 2010. "Information, Preferences, and Public Benefit Participation: Experimental Evidence from the Advance EITC and 401(k) Savings," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 2(2), pages 147-163, April.
  7. Naomi E. Feldman, 2010. "Mental Accounting Effects of Income Tax Shifting," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 92(1), pages 70-86, February.
  8. Raj Chetty & Emmanuel Saez, 2013. "Teaching the Tax Code: Earnings Responses to an Experiment with EITC Recipients," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 5(1), pages 1-31, January.
  9. Abadie, Alberto & Gay, Sebastien, 2006. "The impact of presumed consent legislation on cadaveric organ donation: A cross-country study," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 25(4), pages 599-620, July.
  10. Stefano DellaVigna & Ulrike Malmendier, 2006. "Paying Not to Go to the Gym," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 96(3), pages 694-719, June.
  11. Jannett Highfill & Douglas Thorson & William V. Weber, 1998. "Tax Overwithholding as a Response To Uncertainty," Public Finance Review, SAGE Publishing, vol. 26(4), pages 376-391, July.
  12. Brigitte C. Madrian & Dennis F. Shea, 2001. "The Power of Suggestion: Inertia in 401(k) Participation and Savings Behavior," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(4), pages 1149-1187.
  13. Neumark, David, 1995. "Are Rising Earnings Profiles a Forced-Saving Mechanism?," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 105(428), pages 95-106, January.
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