Earned Income Credit:

Qualifying Child Certification Test Appears Justified, but Evaluation Plan Is Incomplete

GAO-03-794: Published: Sep 30, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2003.

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The Earned Income Credit (EIC), a tax credit available to the working poor, has experienced high rates of noncompliance. Unlike many benefit programs, EIC recipients generally receive payments without advance, formal determinations of eligibility; the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) checks some taxpayers' eligibility later. IRS estimated that tax year 1999 EIC overclaim rates, the most recent data available, to be between 27 and 32 percent of dollars claimed or between $8.5 billion and $9.9 billion. To address overclaims, IRS plans to test a new certification program. Because IRS's plans have garnered much attention, Congress asked us to (1) describe the design and basis for the EIC qualifying child certification program, (2) describe the current status of the program, including significant changes, and (3) assess whether the program is adequately developed to prevent unreasonable burden on EIC taxpayers and improve compliance so that the test should proceed.

The Assistant Treasury Secretary and IRS Commissioner convened a task force to identify ways of reducing EIC overclaims while minimizing taxpayer burden and maintaining the EIC's relatively high participation rate. In August 2002, the Secretary approved a recommendation to certify taxpayers' eligibility to claim EIC qualifying children. The proposal is based on analyses of the leading sources of EIC errors, thus focusing attention and burden on the subset of taxpayers most likely to make those errors. Since August 2002, IRS has made key changes to the certification program, including concentrating on residency certification and postponing relationship certification, delaying program implementation until later this year, and reducing the test sample from 45,000 to 25,000. Despite the changes, the process for selecting taxpayers, what taxpayers will receive from IRS, what taxpayers are required to provide, and the program's goals remain fundamentally the same as originally planned. In addition, IRS has emphasized that program expansions, if any, will depend on the results of this year's test. The process would involve three key stages. These changes, including the most recent, help achieve a better balance between preventing unreasonable taxpayer burden and addressing the EIC's high overclaim rate and support IRS's plans to test the certification program. However, IRS's plan for evaluating the test is incomplete, presenting only some information on how IRS would evaluate whether certification would reduce the EIC overclaim rate, minimize burden, and maintain a relatively high participation rate. The plan proposes potential options for identifying how and when certain critical data will be obtained, but does not provide further details on when decisions will be made or on the specific data that will be collected. Officials have developed preliminary drafts identifying data to be obtained and have begun considering how to use contractors to gather the data. Because the data relate to taxpayers' actions that will occur next spring, IRS appears to have some time to finalize its evaluation plan.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2003, IRS issued its evaluation plan for the Earned Income Tax Credit qualifying child certification program. The plan demonstrated how each of the certification's objectives would be evaluated and included critical milestones.

    Recommendation: Given that the qualifying child certification program is a key part of IRS's plans for reducing EIC overclaims and that certification is intended to help reduce overclaims while minimizing the burden on taxpayers and maintaining the EIC's participation rate, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should, to the extent possible, accelerate development of the evaluation plan for the test. The plan should demonstrate how each of the certification's objectives will be evaluated, including milestones for such critical steps as defining the specific data that will be collected, who will collect the data, and how the data will be analyzed in time to support decisions about the future of the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service


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