Policy Basics: The Earned Income Tax Credit

PDF of this policy basic (3pp.)

Updated January 31, 2014

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a federal tax credit for low- and moderate-income working people.  It encourages and rewards work as well as offsets federal payroll and income taxes.  Twenty-six states, including the District of Columbia, have established their own EITCs to supplement the federal credit.

Who Is Eligible, and for How Much?

In the 2013 tax year, working families with children that have annual incomes below about $37,900 to $51,600 (depending on marital status and the number of dependent children) may be eligible for the federal EITC.  Also, working-poor people without children that have incomes below about $14,300 ($19,700 for a married couple) can receive a very small EITC.  In the 2011 tax year, the most recent year for which the data are available, some 28 million working families and individuals received the EITC.

The amount of EITC depends on a recipient’s income, marital status, and number of children.  As the figure shows, workers receive the credit beginning with their first dollar of earned income; the amount of the credit rises with earned income until it reaches a maximum level and then begins to phase out at higher income levels.  The EITC is “refundable,” which means that if it exceeds a low-wage worker’s income tax liability, the IRS will refund the balance. 

During the 2011 tax year, the average EITC was $2,905 for a family with children, boosting wages by about $240 a month, and $264 for a family without children. 

Research indicates that families mostly use the EITC to pay for necessities, repair homes, maintain vehicles that are needed to commute to work, and in some cases, obtain additional education or training to boost their employability and earning power.

Encouraging and Rewarding Work

The EITC is designed to encourage and reward work.  As noted, a worker’s EITC grows with each additional dollar of earnings until reaching the maximum value.  This creates an incentive for people to leave welfare for work and for low-wage workers to increase their work hours.
This incentive feature has made the EITC highly successful.  Studies show that the EITC encourages large numbers of single parents to leave welfare for work, especially when the labor market is strong.

Specifically, a highly regarded study found that EITC expansions are the most important reason why employment rose among single mothers with children during the 1990s — the EITC was more effective in encouraging work than either welfare reform or the strong economy.  The Committee for Economic Development, an organization of 250 corporate executives and university presidents, concluded in 2000 that “The EITC has become a powerful force in dramatically raising the employment of low-income women in recent years.”

Reducing Poverty

In 2012, the EITC lifted about 6.5 million people out of poverty, including about 3.3 million children.  The number of poor children would have been one-quarter higher without the EITC.  In combination with the Child Tax Credit, the EITC lifts even larger numbers of families with children above poverty (see figure). 

The EITC reduces poverty directly by supplementing the earnings of low-wage workers.  There has been broad bipartisan agreement that a two-parent family with two children with a full-time, minimum-wage worker should not have to raise its children in poverty.  At the federal minimum wage’s current level, such a family can move above the poverty line only if it receives the EITC as well as SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Moving out of poverty is particularly important for young children. Research has found that lifting low-income families’ income when a child is young not only tends to improve a child’s immediate well-being, but is associated with better health, more schooling, more hours worked, and higher earnings in adulthood.  A bourgeoning literature links EITC receipt to improved school performance, suggesting that the social cost of the EITC is substantially less than the immediate direct budget cost.

Strengthening the EITC

The 2009 Recovery Act temporarily expanded the EITC in two ways. First, it added a “third tier” of the EITC for families with three or more children.  These larger families can now receive up to $672 more than they would have without this improvement.  This addition recognizes that larger families face a higher cost of living and that families with three or more children are more than twice as likely as smaller families to be poor.
Second, the Recovery Act expanded marriage penalty relief in the EITC, reducing the financial penalty some couples receive when they marry by allowing married couples to receive larger benefits at modestly higher income levels.
In 2012, these two expansions together lifted an estimated 600,000 people out of poverty and reduced the severity of poverty for approximately 10 million poor people.  Under the American Taxpayer Relief Act, enacted in January 2013, Congress extended these improvements through 2017.

In contrast to the EITC for working families with children, the EITC for workers without children remains extremely small — too small even to fully offset federal taxes for workers at the poverty line.  Under current law, a childless adult or noncustodial parent working full-time at the minimum wage is ineligible to receive any EITC benefits.  (Such an individual would receive the maximum EITC if he or she had children.)   As a result, low-wage workers not raising minor children are the only Americans whom the federal income tax taxes into poverty.

For more on the EITC and Child Tax Credit, see “Earned Income Tax Credit Promotes Work, Encourages Children’s Success at School, Research Finds.”

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