Community in Action
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable income tax credit for low to moderate income working individuals and families. EITCs are offered by the federal government and many state governments. Federal earned income limits vary based on family size. The value of the EITC changes yearly; for the 2021 tax year, an individual with no custodial children who earns less than $15,980 can receive up to $543, while a married couple with three or more children making less than $57,414 qualify to receive up to $6,728. States that offer EITCs have various eligibility rules; similar to the federal EITC, refund amounts vary by income1.
Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)
Improved birth outcomes
Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes
Improved maternal health
Increased academic achievement
Increased high school and college completion
Evidence of Effectiveness
There is strong evidence that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) increases employment and income for participating families2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and improves birth outcomes4, 10, 11, 12, 13.
The EITC increases employment, through increases in both labor force participation and hours worked, and earnings for single-parent households, especially those headed by mothers2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16. Refundable EITCs may increase financial stability for single mothers with low incomes through increases in earnings, savings, and reductions in unsecured debt17. The EITC especially increases employment, earnings, and hours worked for mothers with children under age 318. However, experts note a corresponding increase in child care needs and costs for mothers of young children, and increased use of informal child care, which may be lower quality compared to center-based care18. The EITC’s work requirements may make it less accessible to larger families, who have correspondingly larger (and more expensive) child care needs19.
For mothers who are married, the EITC can decrease earnings, labor force participation and hours worked2, 3, 6, 7. However, an increase in state-level EITC can increase married mothers’ self-employment activities, particularly for women with lower incomes and who are not college-educated20. There is limited evidence that the EITC affects the likelihood that men work or the number of hours they work3. However, New York’s non-custodial parent EITC appears to have increased employment among non-custodial parents as well as the percentage of non-custodial parents paying child support in full21. An assessment of the Paycheck Plus program, an EITC-like program for workers without dependent children, finds that expanding the amount of the credit could increase earnings, employment, and women’s health-related quality of life22. In times of high unemployment, the EITC appears to better protect those with moderate earnings, such as skilled workers and married couples, from financial harm due to job loss, but is not as effective for single parents with children23. While families in large cities are the most likely to earn the credit24, 25, the EITC is also a substantial source of income support in rural areas16, 24, 26.
Receipt of the EITC decreases the incidence of babies born with low birthweights4, 10, 11, 12, particularly among Black mothers10, 13. Effects appear larger with more generous state-level EITCs10. EITC receipt is associated with improved maternal27 and child health28, 29, including reduced infant mortality29 and increased breastfeeding rates12. Refundable state EITCs are also associated with improved physical and mental health for mothers with two or more children30. Expansions may improve mental health, especially for women and non-custodial parents22. A study of the 1990 expansion of the federal EITC suggests increasing the EITC may also improve mental health for mothers who are married31. More generous state EITCs also appear to reduce suicide attempts and deaths by suicide32. Receipt of the EITC for children younger than 18 improves children’s health and decreases the likelihood of obesity, especially for children in single-parent households or whose parents have lower levels of education33. Expansions of state EITCs may improve the health of children ages 6-14, and support transitions from public to private health insurance34. However, EITCs do not appear to be associated with children’s short-term health outcomes, such as infections35.
Increasing family income through the EITC has positive effects on children into adulthood, increasing high school and college completion and earnings and employment36, and delaying first births37. Receipt of the EITC improves elementary school achievement38, may reduce food insecurity for children in the short-term39, and reduce children’s problem behaviors40. EITC expansion may improve the quality of home environments28 and decrease children’s entry into foster care41. The EITC may also reduce child neglect in disadvantaged families42. A study of state-level refundable EITCs suggest it may decrease abusive head trauma in children under two years old43.
Recent studies suggest that increases in the EITC are associated with reductions in new marriages but have no impact on divorce rates44. Single mothers are more likely to cohabit than marry if marriage will lead to the loss of EITC benefits, particularly mothers with lower incomes, who have never been married, or are racial minorities45. State-level EITCs may reduce recidivism among women46 and, in the general population, may modestly reduce violent crime47. Experts caution that because average state EITCs are much less than the federal EITC, health and behavioral effects may be less significant48.
The EITC appears to reduce poverty, with the largest effects among single parent families14, 49 and those nearest the poverty line14. The EITC appears to significantly reduce the number of children living in poverty; for example, in 2018 it lifted about 3 million children out of poverty and reduced the severity of poverty for another 6.1 million children50. EITC expansions can also reduce families’ housing cost burden and household crowding, though expansions may not reduce evictions or homelessness51. State EITC supplements appear to be cost-effective, increasing quality of life and longevity among recipients52.
Experts propose expanding the EITC for workers without children and non-custodial parents, as in Washington, DC and New York State3. Experts also suggest that the EITC and related Child Tax Credit (CTC) be structured to be more accessible to parents of larger families, noting Black and Hispanic children are more commonly part of large families and face higher poverty risk compared to white children from large families19.
The EITC is often used to meet short- and medium-term needs25. Research suggests that recipients generally use EITC refunds to create a personal safety net53 by meeting basic needs, repairing vehicles16, 54, and repaying debt16, 54, 55, 56. Some recipients also use it to obtain additional education or training54. The EITC does not appear to increase recipients’ short-term health care spending, even though individuals eligible for the EITC are more likely to miss preventive care and to use emergency care57. State-level EITCs can reduce families’ medical hardships58.
Experts suggest a periodic payment might be spent differently than an annual lump sum refund16, 57 and that advance periodic payments, still disbursed by the IRS, might better meet the needs of program participants59. For example, individuals might avoid overdue bills and high interest payments16, and periodic payments might improve overall food security better than the current EITC lump sum payment model39. A one-year pilot program in Chicago which distributed the EITC as periodic payments suggests recipients experience reduced stress and may have fewer debts and unpaid bills59. Given some of the challenges with the EITC (e.g. small dollar amounts limiting its impact on poverty, potential impacts on individuals’ marriage decisions, difficulties in administration and receipt), some experts go further and propose modifying the EITC to a universal basic income (UBI) program60. A universal income support program may be easier to administer and could address stigma and enrollment challenges61. Universal basic income programs are a suggested strategy to improve individuals’ financial stability, in part by providing regular cash transfers in amounts large enough to cover individuals’ basic needs61, 62, 63.
EITCs may have a positive impact on state and local economies through increased sales and jobs64. Efforts to increase awareness of the EITC, such as direct mailings, may increase take up65.
Potential to decrease disparities: Supported by strong evidence
There is strong evidence that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has the potential to reduce disparities in socioeconomic status among working-age adults, as it increases income and employment for eligible individuals2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. The EITC is designed to benefit households with lower incomes76. Single-parent households, especially those headed by mothers, appear to benefit most, across racial and ethnic groups4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, 37. However, experts find that the largest labor participation increases appear to be for mothers with young children and that EITC benefits may be offset by child care costs18. One study notes that Black and Hispanic families tend to be larger and experts suggest larger families see less benefit from EITC given the work requirement and their comparatively higher child care needs. Experts propose adjusting the EITC structure to be more inclusive of large families19.
The EITC also has the potential to reduce disparities in socioeconomic status among women, as those from lower-income backgrounds whose families receive the EITC appear to delay having children in early adulthood; experts suggest this is related to women’s increased educational attainment37. The EITC also has the potential to reduce disparities in birth outcomes for Black, Hispanic, and white mothers with less than a high school education4, 10, 11, 12, with the largest reductions in low birth weight and premature births for Black mothers10, 13. More generous state-level EITCs appear to produce larger effects10.
The federal EITC was enacted in 1975 and made permanent in 197877; in 1986 Rhode Island became the first state to offer a state-level EITC1. The EITC was created as part of larger reforms to US income support programs for individuals with low incomes; it was intended to offer an incentive for people to participate in formal, paid employment and to reduce the number of individuals enrolled in programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)77. The federal EITC has been expanded multiple times since its inception, and indexed to inflation since 1987. The credit was first offered to families without children in 1993 and the dollar amount increased for families with two or more children3. In the early 2000s, the dollar amount and income phaseout were adjusted to ensure married couples and families with larger numbers of children were not excluded77. The credit for workers without dependent children has historically been smaller than for those with dependent children; it was originally designed to offset a gasoline tax, not reduce poverty77. Additionally, individuals who pay taxes but do not have Social Security numbers are excluded from the federal EITC77 but some states are beginning to include these individuals73.
- What credit value, state and federal, may be needed in your community to achieve the beneficial outcomes documented in the evidence?
- How do credit values and income eligibility criteria account for cost of living in your area?
- How might expanded eligibility, to larger families, non-custodial adults, etc., improve economic conditions in your community? What health outcomes might improve with expanded eligibility?
- Who is successfully claiming and receiving the EITC in your community? What outreach strategies could be implemented to increase awareness to eligible individuals, especially among individuals with disabilities, those with low or no English proficiency, etc.?
As of 2021, 28 states and Washington, DC offer an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that is a percentage of the federal credit; 23 are refundable66. Missouri and Washington will offer a state EITC beginning in 2023; North Carolina ended its state EITC in 201466. In 2019, more than 26 million families received the EITC67; however, about 20% of eligible workers did not claim the EITC68. Eligible individuals who miss claiming the EITC typically include individuals in rural areas; the self-employed; those receiving disability pensions or who have children with disabilities; those without qualifying children; those without English proficiency; grandparents raising grandchildren; and those with recent changes to their marital, employment, or parental status69.
Some areas are expanding EITC eligibility, especially for workers without qualifying children. For example, Washington, DC expanded income eligibility beyond the federal limits for childless workers and increased its state EITC match to 100 percent of the federal EITC70. This expansion appears to be increasing the number of males claiming the credit and experts suggest it may incentivize continued city residency by partially offsetting rising costs of living in DC71. The state of New York and Washington, DC have non-custodial parent EITCs for those who work and pay full child support72. As of 2021, California, Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, and Washington have expanded state EITC eligibility to include workers who file taxes without social security numbers73. These same states as well as Maine, Minnesota, and New Jersey have also lowered the age of eligibility for childless workers to include those younger than 2573. Wisconsin is the only state with an EITC that excludes workers without qualifying children68.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program provides free tax preparation for people with low incomes, those with disabilities, and those with limited English proficiency across the country, which includes helping tax filers claim the EITC74. Innovative programs to increase EITC uptake include Boston Medical Center’s StreetCred, which is embedded in pediatric primary clinics75.
‡ Resources with a focus on equity.
IRS-EITC Toolkits - Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) & other refundable credits: Partner toolkit.
BMC-StreetCred - Boston Medical Center (BMC). StreetCred: Accessible resources and asset building for low-income, working families raising children in America.
* Journal subscription may be required for access.
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