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earned income tax credit, EITC, low income families, welfare, financial shocks, public safety net, empirical research


The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the largest federal antipoverty program in the United States and garners almost universal bipartisan support from politicians, legal scholars, and other commentators. However, assessments of the EITC missed an imperative perspective: that of EITC recipients themselves. Past work relies on largely unconfirmed assumptions about the behaviors and needs of low-income families. This Article provides a novel assessment of the EITC based on original data obtained directly from 194 EITC recipients through in-depth qualitative interviews. The findings are troubling: They show that while the EITC has important advantages over welfare, which it has largely replaced, it fails as a safety net for low-income families. The problem is that the EITC provides a large windfall to families only once per year, during tax refund season. However, low-income families are particularly vulnerable to financial shocks and instability. Not surprisingly, such events rarely coincide with tax refund season. Without a fix, the EITC leaves many families on the brink of financial collapse. In the years to come, many more low-income families may file for bankruptcy or become homeless. Despite this grim outlook, this Article suggests a straightforward and promising new way to distribute the EITC that maintains the program’s advantages while also providing a more secure safety net for low-income families in times of financial shock and instability.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Well-being, Public welfare, Social security, Earned income tax credit, Poor, Financial crises