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Are Household Surveys Like Tax Forms: Evidence from Income Underreporting of the Self Employed

  • Erik Hurst
  • Geng Li
  • Benjamin Pugsley

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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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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Publication status: published as "Are Household Surveys Like Tax Forms: Evidence from Income Underreporting of the Self Employed" (with Geng Li and Ben Pugsley), Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16527
Note: EFG LS PE
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  1. Blundell, Richard & Browning, Martin & Meghir, Costas, 1994. "Consumer Demand and the Life-Cycle Allocation of Household Expenditures," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 61(1), pages 57-80, January.
  2. Bruce D. Meyer & Wallace K. C. Mok & James X. Sullivan, 2009. "The Under-Reporting of Transfers in Household Surveys: Its Nature and Consequences," Working Papers 0903, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  3. John Fitzgerald & Peter Gottschalk & Robert Moffitt, 1998. "An Analysis of Sample Attrition in Panel Data: The Michigan Panel Study of income Dynamics," Economics Working Paper Archive 379, The Johns Hopkins University,Department of Economics.
  4. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2008. "Deconstructing Lifecycle Expenditure," Working Papers wp173, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
  5. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2005. "Lifecycle Prices and Production," NBER Working Papers 11601, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. James Andreoni & Brian Erard & Jonathan Feinstein, 1998. "Tax Compliance," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 36(2), pages 818-860, June.
  7. Steven D. Levitt & John A. List, 2011. "Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 3(1), pages 224-38, January.
  8. Naomi E. Feldman & Joel Slemrod, 2007. "Estimating tax noncompliance with evidence from unaudited tax returns," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 117(518), pages 327-352, 03.
  9. Edvard Johansson, 2005. "An estimate of self-employment income underreporting in Finland," Nordic Journal of Political Economy, Nordic Journal of Political Economy, vol. 31, pages 99-109.
  10. Yuriy Gorodnichenko & Jorge Martinez-Vazquez & Klara Sabirianova Peter, 2008. "Myth and Reality of Flat Tax Reform: Micro Estimates of Tax Evasion Response and Welfare Effects in Russia," NBER Working Papers 13719, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Rebecca M. Blank & Kerwin Kofi Charles & James M. Sallee, 2009. "A Cautionary Tale about the Use of Administrative Data: Evidence from Age of Marriage Laws," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 1(2), pages 128-49, April.
  12. John Gibson & Bonggeun Kim & Chul Chung, 2008. "Using Panel Data to Exactly Estimate Under-Reporting by the Self-Employed," Working Papers in Economics 08/15, University of Waikato, Department of Economics.
  13. Clotfelter, Charles T, 1983. "Tax Evasion and Tax Rates: An Analysis of Individual Returns," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 65(3), pages 363-73, August.
  14. James Banks & Richard Blundell & Arthur Lewbel, 1997. "Quadratic Engel Curves And Consumer Demand," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 79(4), pages 527-539, November.
  15. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2004. "Consumption vs. Expenditure," NBER Working Papers 10307, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  16. Marco Cagetti & Mariacristina De Nardi, 2003. "Entrepreneurship, frictions and wealth," Working Papers 620, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
  17. O'Connell, Philip J. & Russell, Helen & FitzGerald, John, 2006. "Human Resources," Book Chapters, in: Morgenroth, Edgar (ed.), Ex-Ante Evaluation of the Investment Priorities for the National Development Plan 2007-2013 Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
  18. Bonggeun Kim & John Gibson & Chul Chung, 2009. "Using Panel Data to Exactly Estimate Income Under-Reporting by the Self Employed," Labor Economics Working Papers 22996, East Asian Bureau of Economic Research.
  19. Gourinchas, Pierre-Olivier & Parker, Jonathan A, 2000. "Consumption Over the Life-Cycle," CEPR Discussion Papers 2345, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  20. William M. Gentry & R. Glenn Hubbard, 2000. "Entrepreneurship and Household Saving," NBER Working Papers 7894, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  21. Pissarides, Christopher A. & Weber, Guglielmo, 1989. "An expenditure-based estimate of Britain's black economy," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 39(1), pages 17-32, June.
  22. Erik Hurst & Annamaria Lusardi, 2004. "Liquidity Constraints, Household Wealth, and Entrepreneurship," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(2), pages 319-347, April.
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