What if You Didn’t Have to File a Tax Return?

Now that we’ve all made it through the 2021 tax filing season, it’s worth thinking about a recurring question in tax policy: is it possible that most of us wouldn’t need to go through this annual ritual? Couldn’t the government just tell us how much we owe (or are due as a refund), or better yet, just deduct the correct amount from our paycheck so we’d have paid the right amount?

We need to imagine such a system: it exists in many developed nations around the world! And it’s true that, at least for many taxpayers, the IRS already has all the information on you it needs to calculate your taxes.

But how many US taxpayers would this be beneficial for? A new working paper which tries to quantify this question. In “Automatic Tax Filing: Simulating a Pre-Populated Form 1040,” the authors use a large sample of tax returns to estimate how many taxpayers a pre-filled return would work for. The results are almost split down the middle: it would work well for maybe half of US taxpayers (41-48% of taxpayers, depending on how we are defining successful). For the other half, it wouldn’t give you an accurate estimate of how much tax you owed.

And the errors can be large. For example, the authors report that “two-thirds of the cases where the lower bound approach is inaccurate, the pre-populated liability is higher than the reported liability, with a median gap of $4,200.” Note: looking at the tables, I think they mean to say “mean,” not “median” here, with the median being $1,400. Still, that’s a lot of errors in a direction that would hurt taxpayers if they didn’t fill it out on their own or pay someone to do it. And it’s not just one thing that’s causing pre-filled returns to be wrong. You might think itemized deductions are a big issue, and they are, but only for about 11% of returns (and in only 4% of returns is this the only issue). They find that 9% of returns didn’t even have the reported wages matching what the IRS showed!

Does this mean that pre-filled returns are doomed in the US? Perhaps not! They seem to work much better for younger, single filers, and as well as filers with very low income, as Figure 1 from the paper shows. Even so, the 60-80% success rate (depending on criteria) for very low income taxpayers isn’t especially encouraging. But one upshot of a pre-filled return is that there are possibly millions of taxpayers (maybe 8 or 12 million?) that don’t file a return because they aren’t legally required to (too low income), but they would benefit if they did because of refundable credits like the EITC and Child Tax Credit.

Maybe there is a compromise position. The IRS could send you a “suggested tax return,” but allow you to modify it. I suspect that, in most cases, those who are currently paying for a person or software to do their taxes would still do it. You can’t know if you are in the one-half of taxpayers where this information is accurate! The IRS could provide a list of “common reasons why you may be in the half of pre-filled tax returns that are wrong,” but we’re still shifting the burden back to the taxpayer.

I would like to suggest, instead, that there are a few changes we could make to our tax system (“simplifications,” if you will) that might make pre-filled returns much more viable.

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