EITC: A Sensible Solution
For the Grantmakers Income Security Task Force
As advocates around the country make the case for protecting and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), they need to navigate cultural understandings that influence public support and be cognizant of which communications approaches engage greater enthusiasm, which are dead ends, and why.
THE BEST CASE FOR EITC
Our testing suggests the best case for engaging public support rests on two ideas: 1) the EITC is a common sense way to help working people; and 2) it has benefits beyond individuals.
The EITC is one of the most sensible aspects of our tax code. It is a tax credit for working people with low incomes, and a few thousand dollars allows them to stay current on bills or to afford a car repair so they can get to work. When working people can keep up basic spending, it boosts families, communities and our economy.
Why this Works: A Focus on Workers
Put briefly, success or failure can depend on whether those who benefit from the EITC are perceived as “people who work” or as “the poor” (who are typically perceived to not work).
When communicators clarify this is “a tax break for working people,” Americans are often very generous and empathetic. They see recipients as people much like them, who are having it tough and can use a break. When we fail to connect the dots and the EITC is not clearly established as benefiting low-income working people, it is very easy to trigger images of the “undeserving poor” who (according to this perspective) are not working, may not be trying hard enough to support or better themselves, are looking for a handout, and so forth. In this context, people are more likely to be skeptical and to view the EITC as a handout from the government.
Why this Works: Benefiting the Common Good
Support for the EITC is further strengthened, and the issue takes on broader significance, when it is tied to a narrative about how communities and businesses depend on people who are able to participate in the economy. Even those who do not claim the EITC personally can see how they and everyone else benefits from the EITC when they consider the broader implications.
This case is effective across the ideological spectrum:
It improves the economy for the community and also helps make life easier for the families. (28-year old liberal woman, MA)
The EITC helps everyone. It provides a little extra to low-income people who are working (so not people who are trying to take advantage) and it helps businesses, since it gives low-income people extra money to spend at businesses. (34-year old conservative woman, VA)
KEEP IT SIMPLE
This research suggests that several other approaches, including messages to inoculate against perceived vulnerabilities, add unnecessary complexity, which can lead to questions and controversy, for example:
The EITC lifts millions out of poverty: Too often, communicators don't connect the dots on why the EITC addresses poverty. When people hear an abstract point about “lifting out of poverty” they assume it takes more than a tax credit. Instead, they imagine a change in circumstances such as a new job, furthering one’s education, etc. Furthermore, highlighting poverty can trigger a problematic mindset in which the EITC is understood as a handout rather than something earned.
The EITC can narrow the income gap: Framing the EITC as a solution to an injustice like income inequality or an unbalanced tax code is an overly complicated starting point for this issue and often triggers a partisan response. These approaches may have benefits in a broader conversation about tax policy, but as leading arguments for this issue they are unnecessarily polarizing.
The EITC is just as/more effective than increasing the minimum wage: The public does not see a zero-sum relationship between the EITC and the minimum wage. Many of our respondents support both policies, and see absolutely no inconsistency in these positions.
Refundability means. . . When people hear that recipients can get money beyond what they paid in income tax, they often have surprised and negative reactions. For most, however, the objections are not strong enough to derail the positive perspective created by the core story. If the topic does come up, the following explanation proved helpful in our testing: Workers pay a lot of taxes, not just income taxes, so the credit helps to compensate for that as well.
Charges of fraud are overblown: The research concludes that it is not helpful to bring up fraud in an attempt to inoculate against concerns that haven’t been introduced, because it leads to a greater focus on the problem. Depending on how fraud is raised, communicators can neutralize the issue with the idea that 1) occasional fraud is no reason to kill a good program – instead, improve enforcement; and 2) so-called “fraud” is actually honest mistakes due to complicated rules that should be simplified.
If communicators focus on the core story of the EITC as a sensible tax break for working people that also has broader benefits for the rest of us, they are likely to get a positive reception. Many of the objections raised by opponents are relatively easily dealt with (among the public), and the greatest challenges arise when the conversation gets too detailed or when advocates try to make what are perceived to be “big” claims.
State context matters, and it is likely that the case will be tougher in some states than others. Still, in any case, the recommended core story is the most effective starting point for a conversation with the general public.
The research for this project consisted of cognitive elicitations, TalkBack testing, and a Virtual Community Forum, totaling roughly 240 research participants.
Topos has as its mission to explore and ultimately transform the landscape of public understanding where public interest issues play out. Our approach is based on the premise that while it is possible to achieve short-term victories on issues through a variety of strategies, real change depends on a fundamental shift in public understanding. Topos was created to bring together the range of expertise needed to understand existing issue dynamics, explore possibilities for creating new issue understanding, develop a proven course of action, and arm advocates with new communications tools to win support.
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