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A Welfare Analysis of Tax Audits Across the Income Distribution

William Boning, Nathaniel Hendren, Ben Sprung-Keyser and Ellen Stuart

No 31376, NBER Working Papers from National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc

Abstract: We estimate the returns to IRS audits of taxpayers across the income distribution. We find an additional $1 spent auditing taxpayers above the 90th income percentile yields more than $12 in revenue, while audits of below-median income taxpayers yield $5. We draw upon comprehensive internal accounting information and audit-level enforcement logs to quantify the average costs and revenues associated with each audit. We begin by estimating the average initial return to all audits of US taxpayers filing in 2010-2014. On average, $1 in audit spending raises $2.17 in initial revenue. Audits of high-income taxpayers are more costly, but the additional revenue raised more than offsets the costs. Audits of the 99-99.9th percentile have a 3.2:1 return; audits of the top 0.1% return 6.3:1. We then exploit the 40% audit reduction between tax years 2010 and 2014 to examine the returns to marginal audits. We find they exceed the returns to average audits. Revenues remain relatively unchanged but marginal costs fall below average costs due to economies of scale. Next, we use randomly selected audits to examine the impact of an initial audit on future revenue. This specific deterrence effect produces at least three times more revenue than the initial audit. Deterrence effects are relatively consistent across the income distribution. This results in the 12:1 return above the 90th percentile. We conclude by estimating the welfare consequences of audits using the MVPF framework and comparing audits to other revenue raising policies. We find that audits raise revenue at lower welfare cost.

JEL-codes: H0 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2023-06
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-acc, nep-iue, nep-pbe and nep-pub
Note: LE LS PE POL
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Citations: View citations in EconPapers (2)

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