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Optimal Income Transfer Programs: Intensive Versus Extensive Labor Supply Responses

  • Emmanuel Saez

This paper investigates the optimal income transfer problem at the low end of the income distribution. The government maximizes a social welfare function and faces the traditional equity-efficiency trade-off. The paper models labor supply behavioral responses along the intensive margin (hours or intensity of work on the job) and along the extensive margin (participation in the labor force). Optimal tax formulas are derived as a function of the behavioral elasticities, the shape of the income distribution and the redistribution tastes of the government. When behavioral responses are concentrated along the intensive margin, the optimal transfer program is a classical Negative Income Tax program with a substantial guaranteed income support that is taxed away at high rates. However, when behavioral responses are concentrated along the extensive margin, the optimal transfer program is an Earned Income Credit program with negative marginal tax rates at low income levels and a small guaranteed income. Numerical simulations calibrated with the actual empirical earnings distribution are presented for a range of behavioral elasticities and redistributive tastes of the government. For realistic elasticities, the optimal program provides a moderate guaranteed income, imposes low tax rates on very low annual earnings levels, and then starts phasing out benefits at substantial rates.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 7708.

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Date of creation: May 2000
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Saez, Emmanuel. "Optimal Income Transfer Programs: Intensive Versus Extensive Labor Supply Responses," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2002, v107(3,Aug), 1039-1073.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7708
Note: PE
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  1. Blank, Rebecca M. & Card, David & Robins, Philip K., 1999. "Financial Incentives for Increasing Work and Income Among Low-Income Families," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt2f15x7sg, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  2. 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.
  3. Emmanuel Saez, 2000. "Using Elasticities to Derive Optimal Income Tax Rates," NBER Working Papers 7628, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Zeckhauser, Richard J, 1971. "Optimal Mechanisms for Income Transfer," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 61(3), pages 324-34, June.
  5. P. A. Diamond & J. A. Mirrlees, 1977. "A Model of Social Insurance With Variable Retirement," Working papers 210, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  6. J. A. Mirrlees, 1971. "An Exploration in the Theory of Optimum Income Taxation," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 38(2), pages 175-208.
  7. Philip K. Robins, 1985. "A Comparison of the Labor Supply Findings from the Four Negative Income Tax Experiments," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 20(4), pages 567-582.
  8. Kanbur, Ravi & Keen, Michael & Tuomala, Matti, 1994. "Optimal non-linear income taxation for the alleviation of income-poverty," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 38(8), pages 1613-1632, October.
  9. Jon Gruber & Emmanuel Saez, 2000. "The Elasticity of Taxable Income: Evidence and Implications," NBER Working Papers 7512, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Danziger, Sheldon & Haveman, Robert & Plotnick, Robert, 1981. "How Income Transfer Programs Affect Work, Savings, and the Income Distribution: A Critical Review," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 19(3), pages 975-1028, September.
  11. P. Diamond & J. Helms & J. Mirrlees, 1978. "Optimal Taxation in a Stochastic Economy: A Cobb-Douglas Example," Working papers 217, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  12. David Card & Philip K. Robins, 1996. "Do Financial Incentives Encourage Welfare Recipients to Work? Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation of the Self-Sufficiency Project," NBER Working Papers 5701, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Nada Eissa & Hilary Williamson Hoynes, 2000. "The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Labor Supply of Married Couples," Public Economics 9912001, EconWPA.
  14. Mirrlees, J. A., 1982. "Migration and optimal income taxes," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(3), pages 319-341, August.
  15. Nada Eissa & Jeffrey B. Liebman, 1996. "Labor Supply Response to the Earned Income Tax Credit," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 111(2), pages 605-637.
  16. Bruce D. Meyer & Dan T. Rosenbaum, 2001. "Welfare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Labor Supply of Single Mothers," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(3), pages 1063-1114.
  17. Tuomala, Matti, 1990. "Optimal Income Tax and Redistribution," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198286059, December.
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