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The Optimal Income Taxation of Couples

  • Kleven, Henrik
  • Kreiner, Claus Thustrup
  • Saez, Emmanuel

This paper analyzes the optimal income tax treatment of couples. Each couple is modelled as a single rational economic agent supplying labor along two dimensions: primary and secondary earnings. We consider fully general joint income tax systems. Separate taxation is never optimal if social welfare depends on total couple incomes. In a model where secondary earners make only a binary work decision (work or not work), we demonstrate that the marginal tax rate of the primary earner is lower when the spouse works. As a result, the tax distortion on the secondary earner decreases with the earnings of the primary earner and actually vanishes to zero asymptotically. Such negative jointness is optimal because redistribution from two-earner toward one-earner couples is more valuable when primary earner income is lower. We also consider a model where both spouses display intensive labor supply responses. In that context, we show that, starting from the optimal separable tax schedules, introducing some negative jointness is always desirable. Numerical simulations suggest that, in that model, it is also optimal for the marginal tax rate on one earner to decrease with the earnings of his/her spouse. We argue that many actual redistribution systems, featuring family-based transfers combined with individually-based taxes, generate schedules with negative jointness.

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Paper provided by C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers in its series CEPR Discussion Papers with number 5978.

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Date of creation: Dec 2006
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Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:5978
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  1. Emmanuel Saez, 2002. "Optimal Income Transfer Programs: Intensive Versus Extensive Labor Supply Responses," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 117(3), pages 1039-1073, August.
  2. Wilson, Robert, 1997. "Nonlinear Pricing," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780195115826.
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  4. Lundberg, S.J. & Pollak, R.A. & Wales, T.J., 1994. "Do Husbands and Wives Pool Their Resources? Evidence from U.K. Child Benefit," Discussion Papers in Economics at the University of Washington 94-6, Department of Economics at the University of Washington.
  5. Roger B. Myerson, 1988. "Mechanism Design," Discussion Papers 796, Northwestern University, Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics and Management Science.
  6. Thomas Piketty, 1997. "La redistribution fiscale face au chômage," Revue Française d'Économie, Programme National Persée, vol. 12(1), pages 157-201.
  7. Mirrlees, J. A., 1976. "Optimal tax theory : A synthesis," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 6(4), pages 327-358, November.
  8. Seade, J. K., 1977. "On the shape of optimal tax schedules," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 7(2), pages 203-235, April.
  9. Boskin, Michael J. & Sheshinski, Eytan, 1983. "Optimal tax treatment of the family: Married couples," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 20(3), pages 281-297, April.
  10. Armstrong, Mark, 1996. "Multiproduct Nonlinear Pricing," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 64(1), pages 51-75, January.
  11. Diamond, P., 1994. "Optimal Income Taxation: An Exemple with a U-Shaped Pattern of Optimal Marginal Tax Rates," Working papers 94-14, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  12. Chiappori, Pierre-Andre, 1988. "Rational Household Labor Supply," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 56(1), pages 63-90, January.
  13. Blundell, Richard & Macurdy, Thomas, 1999. "Labor supply: A review of alternative approaches," Handbook of Labor Economics, in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 27, pages 1559-1695 Elsevier.
  14. Tuomala, Matti, 1990. "Optimal Income Tax and Redistribution," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198286059.
  15. Sadka, Efraim, 1976. "On Income Distribution, Incentive Effects and Optimal Income Taxation," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 43(2), pages 261-67, June.
  16. Joseph E. Stiglitz, 1981. "Self-Selection and Pareto Efficient Taxation," NBER Working Papers 0632, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  17. Saez, Emmanuel, 2001. "Using Elasticities to Derive Optimal Income Tax Rates," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 68(1), pages 205-29, January.
  18. James Alm & Stacy Dickert-Conlin & Leslie A. Whittington, 1999. "Policy Watch: The Marriage Penalty," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 13(3), pages 193-204, Summer.
  19. McAfee, R. Preston & McMillan, John, 1988. "Multidimensional incentive compatibility and mechanism design," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 46(2), pages 335-354, December.
  20. Shelly Lundberg & Robert A. Pollak, 1996. "Bargaining and Distribution in Marriage," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 10(4), pages 139-158, Fall.
  21. Armstrong, Mark & Rochet, Jean-Charles, 1999. "Multi-dimensional screening:: A user's guide," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 43(4-6), pages 959-979, April.
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