Taxation & Inequality Research

Faculty Leads:

Emmanuel Saez, Professor of Economics; Chancellor's Chair in Tax and Public Finance; Direcotr, Center for Equitable Growth. 

Danny Yagan, Assistant Professor of Economics; Faculty Research Fellow, National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Gabriel Zucman, Assistant Professor of Economics; Co-Director, World Wealth and Income Database.

Affiliated Faculty:

Patrick Kline, Associate Professor of Economics; Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Taxation & Inequality Initiative:

With economic inequality rising, the identification of policies which address equitable and efficient taxation is a defining challenge of our time. The Opportunity Lab's Taxation and Inequality Initiative, led by Professors Emmanuel SaezDanny Yagan, and Gabriel Zucman, conducts research on the causes and consequences of rising inequality and on policies which might mitigate this trend. Affiliated scholars act as leading voices in discussions on economic inequality, tax policy, and the interplay between the two. Publications include seminal work on long-run trends in economic inequality in the US and abroad, the functioning of the US tax system, the equity and efficiency effects of tax reforms, and the challenges raised by globalization in taxing income and wealth effectively.

Research:

We characterize rates of intergenerational income mobility at each college in the United States using administrative data for over 30 million college students from 1999-2013. We document four results. First, access to colleges varies greatly by parent income. For example, children whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile. Second, children from low and high-income families have very similar earnings outcomes conditional on the college they attend, indicating that there is little mismatch of low socioeconomic status students to selective colleges. Third, upward mobility rates – measured, for instance, by the fraction of students who come from families in the bottom income quintile and reach the top quintile – vary substantially across colleges. Much of this variation is driven by differences in the fraction of students from low-income families across colleges whose students have similar earnings outcomes. Mid-tier public universities such as the City University of New York and California State colleges tend to have the highest rates of bottom-to-top quintile mobility. Elite private colleges, such as Ivy League universities, have the highest rates of upper-tail (e.g., bottom quintile to top 1%) mobility. Finally, between the 1980 and 1991 birth cohorts, the fraction of students from bottom-quintile families fell sharply at colleges with high rates of bottom-to-top-quintile mobility, and did not change substantially at elite private institutions. Although our descriptive analysis does not identify colleges' causal effects on students' outcomes, the publicly available statistics constructed here highlight colleges that deserve further study as potential engines of upward mobility.

The severity of the Great Recession varied across U.S. local areas. Comparing two million workers within firms across space, I find that starting the recession in a below-median 2007-2009-employment-shock area caused workers to be 1.0 percentage points less likely to be employed in 2014, relative to starting the recession elsewhere. This enduring impact holds even when controlling for current local unemployment rates, which have converged across space. The results reject secular nationwide skill-biased shocks like exogenous technical change as a full explanation for persistent post-2007 employment declines. Instead, the recession and its underlying causes depressed labor force participation and employment even after unemployment returned to normal.

This paper provides preliminary evidence on behavioral responses to taxation around the 2013 tax increase that raised top marginal tax rates on capital income by about 9.5 points and on labor income by about 6.5 points. Using published tabulated tax statistics from the Statistics of Income division of the IRS, we find that reported top 1% incomes were significantly higher in 2012 than in 2013, implying a large short-run elasticity of reported income with respect to the net-of-tax rate in excess of one. This large short-run elasticity is due to income retiming for tax avoidance purposes and is particularly high for realized capital gains and dividends, and highest at the very top of the income distribution. However, comparing 2011 and 2015 top incomes uncovers only a small medium-term response to the tax increase as top income shares resumed their upward trend after 2013. Overall, we estimate that at most 20% of the projected tax revenue increase from the 2013 tax reform is lost through behavioral responses. This implies that the 2013 tax increase was an efficient way to raise revenue.

This paper combines income tax returns with macroeconomic household balance sheets to estimate the distribution of wealth in the United States since 1913. We estimate wealth by capitalizing the incomes reported by individual taxpayers, accounting for assets that do not generate taxable income. We successfully test our capitalization method in three micro datasets where we can observe both income and wealth: the Survey of Consumer Finance, linked estate and income tax returns, and foundations’ tax records. We find that wealth concentration was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, fell from 1929 to 1978, and has continuously increased since then. The top 0.1% wealth share has risen from 7% in 1978 to 22% in 2012, a level almost as high as in 1929. Top wealth-holders are younger today than in the 1960s and earn a higher fraction of the economy’s labor income. The bottom 90% wealth share first increased up to the mid-1980s and then steadily declined. The increase in wealth inequality in recent decades is due to the upsurge of top incomes combined with an increase in saving rate inequality. We explain how our findings can be reconciled with Survey of Consumer Finances and estate tax data.

We use administrative records on the incomes of more than 40 million children and their parents to describe three features of intergenerational mobility in the United States. First, we characterize the joint distribution of parent and child income at the national level. The conditional expectation of child income given parent income is linear in percentile ranks. On average, a 10 percentile increase in parent income is associated with a 3.4 percentile increase in a child’s income. Second, intergenerational mobility varies substantially across areas within the United States. For example, the probability that a child reaches the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile is 4.4% in Charlotte but 12.9% in San Jose. Third, we explore the factors correlated with upward mobility. High mobility areas have (i) less residential segregation, (ii) less income inequality, (iii) better primary schools, (iv) greater social capital, and (v) greater family stability. Although our descriptive analysis does not identify the causal mechanisms that determine upward mobility, the publicly available statistics on intergenerational mobility developed here can facilitate research on such mechanisms.

This paper presents new homogeneous series on top shares of income and wages from 1913 to 1998 in the United States using individual tax returns data. Top income and wages shares display a U-shaped pattern over the century. Our series suggest that the large shocks that capital owners experienced during the Great Depression and World War II have had a permanent effect on top capital incomes. We argue that steep progressive income and estate taxation may have prevented large fortunes from fully recovering from these shocks. Top wage shares were flat before World War II, dropped precipitously during the war, and did not start to recover before the late 1960s but are now higher than before World War II. As a result, the working rich have replaced the rentiers at the top of the income distribution.