Tax Refund Uncertainty: Evidence and Welfare Implications
040821-WP-Tax Refund Uncertainty-Caldwell Nelson and Waldinger
Sydnee Caldwell, University of California, Berkeley
Scott Nelson, University of Chicago
Daniel Waldinger, New York University
Transfers paid through annual tax refunds are a large but uncertain source of income for poor households. We document that low-income tax-filers have substantial subjective uncertainty about these refunds. We investigate the determinants and consequences of refund uncertainty by linking survey, tax, and credit bureau data. On average, filers’ expectations track realized refunds. More uncertain filers have larger differences between expected and realized refunds. Filers borrow in anticipation of their refunds, but more uncertain filers borrow less, consistent with precautionary behavior. A simple consumption-savings model suggests that refund uncertainty reduces the welfare benefits of the EITC by about 10 percent.