The United States tax system, in addition to being the primary source of government revenue, has evolved over the past five decades into the vehicle for several of the country’s largest social safety nets. But even as the IRS distributes billions of dollars in refundable tax credits to working people and families with children each year, low-income taxpayers can find themselves trapped without legal support in a web of federal tax enforcement and state and local tax burdens.

In this seminar, we will survey the many ways that the tax code permeates the lives of the working poor and those living in poverty. We will study tax as redistribution by exploring the history and impact of programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the 2020 and 2021 Economic Impact Payments. In contrast, we also will study tax as control by examining how the tax code both shapes individual behavior and demarcates deservedness with respect to government aid.

Along the way, we will consider the intersections of tax policy and identity along axes such as race, gender, disability, and citizenship. Finally, we will look to the future and abroad to ask whether and how the U.S. should reconsider its approach to taxation and poverty. Students will leave the course with a deepened understanding of the successes, shortcomings, and nuances of one of the country’s primary anti-poverty policy levers.

Note: You do not need to have taken Taxation of Individual Income or any other tax course to enroll in this seminar.