Rewarding Honest Taxpayers: An Experimental Assessment

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Emily A. Satterthwaite


Shrinking budgetary allocations for tax enforcement at the U.S. federal level have placed an unprecedented premium on low cost policies that promote voluntary tax compliance. In other jurisdictions, tax administrators have experimented with rewarding taxpayers for voluntarily complying with tax laws, but there has been an absence of reward-focused policy experimentation in the United States. To explore the efficacy of rewards among U.S. taxpayer populations, a multi-period online tax reporting experiment was conducted featuring a simple reward intervention: a token monetary amount pre-announced and provided to participants who were audited and found to have fully complied. The reward failed to increase average post-audit compliance levels as compared to the no-reward control condition, regardless of whether random audits or non-random (i.e., conditional on past detected evasion) audits were used. However, the reward treatment condition in combination with random audits was strikingly effective with respect to an alternative measure of tax compliance: “consistent compliance,” or the outcome in which a participant voluntarily reports all of her income in each and every period of the experiment. When used in conjunction with random audits, the reward treatment caused consistent compliance to rise by 89% as compared to the no-reward control condition (statistically significant at the 5% level). These results suggest that pairing token monetary rewards with random audits may help maintain taxpayers’ commitments to voluntary compliance over time. Such findings may justify conducting field experiments to better understand the effects of reward programs on real-world taxpayer populations.

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