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Friday, January 21, 2011

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): An Overview

Christine Scott
Specialist in Social Policy

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC or EIC) began in 1975 as a temporary program to return a portion of the Social Security tax paid by lower income taxpayers, and was made permanent in 1978. In the 1990s, the program became a major component of federal efforts to reduce poverty, and is now the largest anti-poverty cash entitlement program. Childless adults in 2008 (the latest year for which data are available) received an average EITC of $252, families with one child received an average EITC of $1,996, and families with two or more children received an average EITC of $3,105.

A low-income worker must file an annual income tax return to receive the EITC and meet certain requirements for income and age. A tax filer cannot be a dependent of another tax filer and must be a resident of the United States unless overseas because of military duty. The EITC is based on income and whether the tax filer has a qualifying child.

The EITC interacts with several nonrefundable federal tax credits to the extent lower income workers can utilize the credits to reduce tax liability before the EITC. Income from the credit is not used to determine eligibility or benefits for means tested programs. However, 23 states and the District of Columbia now offer an EITC for state taxes, and most of them are based on the federal EITC. Any change in the federal EITC would flow down to impact the state EITC.

Policy issues for the EITC, which reflect either the structure, impact, or administration of the credit, include the work incentive effects of the credit; the marriage penalty for couples filing joint tax returns; the anti-poverty effectiveness of the credit (primarily a family size issue); and potential abuse (i.e., compliance with credit law and regulations).

The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA; P.L. 107-116) made several changes to the credit, including simplifying the definition of earned income to reflect only compensation included in gross income; basing the phase-out of the credit on adjusted gross income instead of expanded (or modified) gross income; and eliminating the reduction in the EITC for the alternative minimum tax.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA; P.L. 111-5) created the category for families with three or more children, with a credit rate of 45%, for tax years 2009 and 2010 only. The ARRA also increased the phase-in amount for married couples filing joint tax returns so that it is $5,000 higher than for unmarried taxpayers in tax year 2009, and $5,010 in tax year 2010.

The changes to the credit made by EGTRRA and ARRA were to expire on December 31, 2010.

The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-312) extended the EGTRRA and ARRA provisions for two years (through 2012).

Date of Report: January 4, 2011
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: RL31768
Price: $29.95

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