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Taxes and the Labor Market Participation of Married Couples: The Earned Income Tax Credit

Hoynes, Hilary. “Taxes and the Labor Market Participation of Married Couples: The Earned Income Tax Credit,” Journal of Public Economics, Volume 88, Number 9-10, pp. 1931-1958, August 2004. (with Nada Eissa).


A distinguishing feature of recent changes to the US system of public assistance is its increasing focus onworking families and reliance on the tax system to transfer dollars to needy families. After a decade in near total obscurity, the earned income tax credit (EITC) was expanded to become the largest cash-transfer program for lower-income families with children. Advocates of the EITC argue that, unlike traditional welfare, the credit helps ‘‘promote both the values of family and work’’. Indeed, empirical evidence consistent with economic theory suggests that the EITC promotes employment among eligible unmarried women with children. To target benefits to lower-income families, however, the EITC is based on family income, leading to traditional welfare-type disincentives for most eligible secondary earners. In fact, the EITC is likely to reduce overall family labor supply among married couples. This paper examines the labor force participation response of married couples to EITC expansions between 1984 and 1996. The effect of the credit is estimated using both quasiexperimental and traditional reduced-form labor supply models. Results from both models show the same qualitative conclusion, that the EITC expansions reduced total family labor supply of married couples. In all cases, we find a decline in labor force participation by married women that more than offsets any rise in participation by their spouses. While the labor force participation rate of married men increased by about 0.2 percentage points, that of married women decreased by just over a full percentage point. These aggregate effects mask substantial heterogeneity in the population. Women facing the strongest disincentives were more than 2 percentage points less likely to work after the expansions. These findings imply that the EITC is effectively subsidizing married mothers to stay home, and therefore, have implications for the design of the program.

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