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Inertia and Overwithholding: Explaining the Prevalence of Income Tax Refunds

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  • Damon Jones

Abstract

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)

Suggested Citation

  • Damon Jones, 2012. "Inertia and Overwithholding: Explaining the Prevalence of Income Tax Refunds," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 4(1), pages 158-185, February.
  • 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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    Cited by:

    1. Christian Vossler & Michael McKee, 2015. "Behavioral effects of tax withholding on tax compliance: Implications for information initiatives," Working Papers 15-12, Department of Economics, Appalachian State University.
    2. Per Engström & Katarina Nordblom & Henry Ohlsson & Annika Persson, 2015. "Tax Compliance and Loss Aversion," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 7(4), pages 132-164, November.
    3. 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.
    4. Fack, Gabrielle & Landais, Camille, 2016. "The effect of tax enforcement on tax elasticities: Evidence from charitable contributions in France," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 133(C), pages 23-40.
    5. Turner, Nicholas, 2011. "The Effect of Tax-Based Federal Student Aid on College Enrollment," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 64(3), pages 839-861, September.
    6. Annette Alstadsæter & Martin Jacob, 2013. "The Effect of Awareness and Incentives on Tax Evasion," CESifo Working Paper Series 4369, CESifo Group Munich.
    7. repec:clp:wpaper:wp18 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Marika Cabral & Caroline Hoxby, 2012. "The Hated Property Tax: Salience, Tax Rates, and Tax Revolts," NBER Working Papers 18514, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Carol Osler & Thang Nguyen & Tanseli Savaser, 2011. "Asymmetric Information and the Foreign-Exchange Trades of Global Custody Banks," Department of Economics Working Papers 2011-09, Department of Economics, Williams College.
    10. Kessler, Judd B. & Norton, Michael I., 2016. "Tax aversion in labor supply," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 124(C), pages 15-28.
    11. Sara LaLumia & James Sallee, 2013. "The value of honesty: empirical estimates from the case of the missing children," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 20(2), pages 192-224, April.
    12. Harris, Timothy & Yelowitz, Aaron, 2015. "Nudging Life Insurance Holdings in the Workplace," MPRA Paper 67150, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    13. Botond Koszegi & Adam Szeidl, 2013. "A Model of Focusing in Economic Choice," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 128(1), pages 53-104.
    14. Erin Todd Bronchetti & Thomas S. Dee & David B. Hufman & Ellen Magenheim, 2013. "When a Nudge Isn’t Enough: Defaults and Saving Among Low-Income Tax Filers," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 66(3), pages 609-634, September.
    15. Dayanand S. Manoli & Nicholas Turner, 2014. "Cash-on-Hand & College Enrollment: Evidence from Population Tax Data and Policy Nonlinearities," NBER Working Papers 19836, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    16. Jacob, Martin & Alstadsæter, Annette, 2013. "Payout policies of privately held firms: Flexibility and the role of income taxes," arqus Discussion Papers in Quantitative Tax Research 152, arqus - Arbeitskreis Quantitative Steuerlehre.
    17. Tzu-Ting Yang, 2016. "Family Labor Supply and the Timing of Cash Transfers: Evidence from the Earned Income Tax Credit," IEAS Working Paper : academic research 16-A012, Institute of Economics, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan.
    18. Turner, Nick, 2010. "Why Don’t Taxpayers Maximize their Tax-Based Student Aid? Salience and Inertial in Program Selection," University of California at San Diego, Economics Working Paper Series qt0pb3f440, Department of Economics, UC San Diego.
    19. repec:eee:ijrema:v:32:y:2015:i:3:p:238-250 is not listed on IDEAS
    20. Alstadsæter, Annette & Jacob, Martin, 2013. "Who participates in tax avoidance?," arqus Discussion Papers in Quantitative Tax Research 148, arqus - Arbeitskreis Quantitative Steuerlehre.
    21. Turner Nicholas, 2011. "Why Don't Taxpayers Maximize their Tax-Based Student Aid? Salience and Inertia in Program Selection," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 11(1), pages 1-24, December.
    22. Jacob, Martin & Johan, Sofia & Schweizer, Denis & Zhan, Feng, 2016. "Corporate finance and the governance implications of removing government support programs," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 63(C), pages 35-47.
    23. repec:bla:ecinqu:v:55:y:2017:i:2:p:951-981 is not listed on IDEAS
    24. Johannes Becker & Jonas Fooken & Melanie Steinhoff, 2018. "Behavioral Effects of Withholding Taxes on Labor Supply," Discussion Papers Series 589, School of Economics, University of Queensland, Australia.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D14 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Saving; Personal Finance
    • H24 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Personal Income and Other Nonbusiness Taxes and Subsidies
    • K34 - Law and Economics - - Other Substantive Areas of Law - - - Tax Law

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