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The Earned Income Tax Credit and Community Economic Stability

Natalie Holmes and Alan Berube

This originally appeared in “Insight,” a publication of Grantmakers for Children, Youth, and Families.

For many in the United States, American poverty conjures images of urban blight or remote Appalachian hardship that motivated the War on Poverty in the 1960s. But the geography of poverty in the U.S. has shifted well beyond its historical confines (Kneebone and Berube, 2013). During the first decade of the 2000s, the poor population living in suburbs of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas for the first time outstripped the poor population living in central cities, and poverty continues to grow faster today in the suburbs.1 This trend has been even more pronounced for those living below twice the federal poverty line—equivalent to $48,500 for a family of four in 2015—which roughly mirrors the population eligible to receive the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Although it was not originally billed as an antipoverty program, in its 40 years, the EITC has become one of the nation’s most effective tools for lifting low-income workers and their families above the poverty line. In 2013 alone, Brookings estimates that the EITC lifted 6.2 million people, including 3.1 million children, out of poverty (Kneebone and Holmes, 2014). What follows is a discussion of the EITC’s growing importance to recipients in light of the new geography of poverty, its role in boosting local economies, and how expanding participation in the program and paying the credit differently could enhance its effectiveness as a local economic stabilizer.

The shifting geography of poverty challenges traditional approaches to combat poverty through investments in place.

When President Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, poverty in the U.S. was primarily urban or rural. This was also the case in 1975 when the EITC was created: Nearly a million more low-income individuals at that time lived in rural areas or big cities than in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas.2 Place-based antipoverty interventions dating to the War on Poverty were thus designed with these two geographies—especially cities—in mind. Brookings estimates that today, the federal government spends about $82 billion per year across more than 80 place-focused antipoverty programs, spread across 10 agencies (Kneebone and Berube, 2013). Many are not well-suited to suburban contexts, for several reasons.

First, suburban poverty is more geographically diffuse than urban poverty. Suburban communities tend to be less densely populated than cities and larger in size, and cover more total area. Whereas centralized services might be appropriate in an urban context because they are easily accessible to many in need, it is more difficult to achieve those economies of scale in the suburbs, where residents live farther apart and have limited access to transit. Many competitive federal grant programs allocate points based on population served and population density, implicitly favoring large central cities.

Second, suburban municipalities may lack the experience and administrative capacity needed to sustain services for low-income families and communities. Cities have dealt with poverty longer, and have had more time to develop strategies and structures to support their poor populations. Some of this capacity stemmed explicitly from Community Action Agencies, one of the original War on Poverty programs, which was intended to spur local innovation. Small suburban communities by and large did not have this same experience. Because of their relatively small size, suburban governments may not be able to achieve the administrative scale needed to deliver effective safety-net programs.

Third, many suburban communities lack the economic scale and fiscal structure needed to fund services for low-income residents. Because many small municipalities are limited in how they are permitted to raise revenues—typically through a combination of property and sales taxes—they are especially prone to financial instability caused by the very economic conditions that also generate greater need for services. As poverty suburbanizes, small suburban communities simultaneously face rising demand and falling tax revenues to support those services. Moreover, tax “competition” among many small suburbs within a metro area can further erode the fiscal capacity and political will for these jurisdictions to support people in need.

The new geography of poverty makes direct investments in low-income individuals and families—like the EITC—even more important.

The mismatch between existing place-based antipoverty strategies and the places where poverty is growing fastest heightens the importance of investing directly and effectively in low-income individuals and families through programs such as the EITC. Following its expansion in the mid-1990s, the EITC became the most significant cash transfer program available to low-income working families. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS, 2014) estimates that approximately 79 percent of EITC-eligible taxpayers nationally claim the credit each year—a remarkably strong participation rate among federal safety-net programs.

The high program participation rate and growth over time in EITC expenditures reflects both increases in the credit’s generosity and growing need. In 2000, according to our analysis of IRS Stakeholder Partnerships, Education and Communities (IRS-SPEC) data, total EITC expenditures topped $42 billion (in 2013 dollars). In 2013, they approached $65 billion, equivalent to approximately 80 percent of the amount spent by the federal government on place-based poverty interventions.3

Analysis of IRS-SPEC data further suggests that the EITC’s geographic incidence closely tracks the shifting geography of need. From 2000 to 2013, the number of suburban filers claiming the EITC rose by 62 percent, compared to 33 percent in cities. Changes in the distribution of EITC claims mirrored changes in the location of poor and near-poor populations, particularly growth in the suburbs.4 And because lower-income suburban communities (where at least 40 percent of residents are poor or near-poor) are becoming more diverse, too—60 percent of their residents are non-white or Hispanic—the EITC also effectively reduces growing race-based income gaps in suburbs.5


EITC dollars support local economies.

The EITC benefits not only low-income families, but also the wider communities in which they live. Although it is widely regarded today as one of the country’s most successful antipoverty programs, the EITC was originally designed to be a temporary economic stimulus measure, in the Tax Reduction Act of 1975 (Nichols and Rothstein, 2015). During the 2000s, more local and state governments made a concerted push to expand participation in the EITC among eligible filers, in part to inject more federal dollars into their local economies (Berube, 2006a).

There are several mechanisms through which the EITC could benefit local economies. California State University researchers categorize the local economic impact of EITC refunds as the sum of direct effects (EITC recipients spending their refunds), indirect effects (business spending in response to EITC recipient spending), and induced effects (changes in household income and spending patterns caused by direct and indirect effects). Together, these effects represent the local “multiplier” effect (Avalos and Alley, 2010). Their estimates for California counties suggest that, in many cases, the credit creates local economic impacts equivalent to at least twice the amount of EITC dollars received.

Direct economic effects result from EITC recipients spending a portion of their refund locally, supporting local businesses and jobs. Consumer surveys show that low-income families spend a relatively large share of their income on groceries and other necessities, which tend to be purchased locally. Analysis of those surveys links tax refund season to increased likelihood of consumer activity as well as larger purchases (Adams, Einav, and Levin, 2009). People spend more, and more frequently, during tax refund season.

The EITC also supports local communities in less obvious ways. The concept of “tax incidence” reflects that the party being taxed, or receiving a tax credit, may not bear its full costs (or reap its benefits) because others shift their behavior in response to the tax. Along these lines, Jesse Rothstein estimates that as much as 36 cents of every dollar of EITC received flows to employers, because by enabling workers to better make ends meet on low wages, the credit effectively lowers the cost of labor. Those lower labor costs may, in turn, allow local employers to hire more local workers (Nichols and Rothstein, 2015).

Finally, emerging evidence suggests that progressive tax expenditures like the EITC can enhance intergenerational income mobility for local children, possibly by counteracting credit constraints that many low-income families face (Chetty, Hendren, Kline, and Saez, 2015). In areas with larger state EITCs, low-income children are more likely to move up the income ladder over time.

The local impact of the EITC depends on how, and how many, eligible filers claim the credit.

The local impact of the EITC also depends on whether eligible workers and families file tax returns and claim the credit. As noted above, the IRS estimates that 79 percent of those eligible to receive the EITC nationally claim it. Given local variation in characteristics associated with uptake, there is likely also considerable local variation in EITC participation (Berube, 2005). Efforts to increase participation locally can thus increase the level of investment communities receive from the program.

Research has identified several factors associated with EITC participation rates among the eligible population. Eligible filers less likely to claim the credit include those who live in rural areas, are self-employed, do not have qualifying children, do not speak English well, are grandparents, or recently changed their filing status (IRS, 2015). One study suggests that communities with moderately sized immigrant populations may exhibit lower EITC participation rates, due perhaps to less robust social networks or more dispersed/heterogeneous populations that may limit awareness of the credit (Berube, 2006b).

Recent research also suggests that EITC participation is higher in areas with more tax preparers, who may promote greater local awareness of the credit (Chetty, Friedman, and Saez, 2012). While individuals who enlist the help of tax preparers are more likely to receive the EITC, they may face significant fees that blunt the credit’s overall impact (Berube, 2006a). Expanding access to volunteer tax preparation services or simple, free online filing could help preserve more of the credit’s value for low-income families and their communities.

To maximize the EITC’s role as a local economic stabilizer, we should consider periodic payment options.

 The EITC already functions as an important antipoverty tool for low-income workers and families, and a boon to local economic stability. Communities should nonetheless be interested in efforts to connect taxpayers to a portion of their EITC throughout the year, rather than only as a lump-sum refund at tax time.

Debt features significantly on the balance sheets of EITC recipients. Recent research finds that about 95 percent of EITC recipients have debt of some kind, and that large shares of refunds are dedicated to debt payments or deferred expenses (such as car repair). Recipients do not use the majority of EITC refunds to pay for monthly expenses, despite the fact that their wages typically cover only two-thirds of those expenses (Halpern-Meekin, Edin, Tach, and Sykes, 2015).

Paying a portion of filers’ anticipated EITC periodically (and directly, rather than through employers like the defunct Advance EITC program) in smaller amounts over the course of a year could help them cope with these spending constraints and avoid taking on debt (Holt, 2008). By enabling families to better keep up with spending on regular items most often purchased locally—rent, food, vehicle maintenance—periodic payments could also support local economies. And by improving families’ liquidity, such payments could reduce reliance on high-cost financial products such as payday loans.

The EITC continues to gain importance as place-based strategies lag behind poverty’s suburbanization, and communities seek ways to maximize public investment in the face of budget constraints at all levels. The program lifts millions of working individuals and families out of poverty each year regardless of their location, and in doing so also supports community financial stability. An expanded EITC—at the federal, state, or local level—with options for periodic payment and better alternatives to high-cost tax preparation could provide even stronger support to low-income families and the places where they live.


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Halpern-Meekin, S., Edin, K., Tach, L., and Sykes, J. (2015). It’s not like I’m poor: How working families make ends meet in a post-welfare world, Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

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1. For the 100 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas by 2010 population, we define “cities” as the first-named city in the metropolitan area title as well as any other title city with population over 100,000. “Suburbs” are defined as the metropolitan area remainder.

2. Brookings analysis of decennial census data.

3. The IRS-SPEC data from which these estimates are derived are available through Brookings’ Earned Income Tax Credit Data Interactive:

4. We define the “near-poor” population as those with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is roughly equivalent to EITC eligibility.

5. Brookings analysis of American Community Survey data.

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