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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, indicating tax prepayments above the level of tax liability. This amounts to a zero interest loan to the government. Previous studies have suggested two main explanations for this behavior: precautionary behavior in light of tax uncertainty and/or a forced savings motive. I present evidence on a third explanation: inertia. I find that tax filers only partially adjust tax prepayments in response to changes in default withholdings or tax liability. I use four different settings for identification: (1) a 1992 change in default federal withholding, (2) a panel study of child dependents and tax liability, (3) the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) during the 1990s and (4) a change in default enrollment rules for the Advance EITC option. In the first two cases, I find that individuals offset less than 30% of a change to their expected refund after one year, and about 50% of this shock after three years. Adjustments in tax prepayments by EITC recipients offset no more than 2% of a change in tax liability, though evidence from the Advance EITC indicates that information can significantly increase responses. Given the evidence on inertia, the design of default withholding rules is no longer a neutral decision made by the social planner, but rather, may affect consumption smoothing, particularly for low-income tax filers.

Suggested Citation

  • Damon Jones, 2010. "Inertia and Overwithholding: Explaining the Prevalence of Income Tax Refunds," NBER Working Papers 15963, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15963
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    Cited by:

    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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. Alstadsæter, Annette & Jacob, Martin, 2013. "The effect of awareness and incentives on tax evasion," arqus Discussion Papers in Quantitative Tax Research 147, arqus - Arbeitskreis Quantitative Steuerlehre.
    8. 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.
    9. Annette Alstadsæter & Martin Jacob, 2013. "Who Participates in Tax Avoidance?," CESifo Working Paper Series 4219, CESifo Group Munich.
    10. 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.
    11. 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.
    12. 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.
    13. repec:eee:ijrema:v:32:y:2015:i:3:p:238-250 is not listed on IDEAS
    14. repec:bla:ecinqu:v:55:y:2017:i:2:p:951-981 is not listed on IDEAS
    15. 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.
    16. 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.
    17. 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.
    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:clp:wpaper:wp18 is not listed on IDEAS
    20. Kessler, Judd B. & Norton, Michael I., 2016. "Tax aversion in labor supply," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 124(C), pages 15-28.
    21. Harris, Timothy & Yelowitz, Aaron, 2015. "Nudging Life Insurance Holdings in the Workplace," MPRA Paper 67150, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    22. 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.
    23. 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.
    24. 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.

    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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