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The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC or EIC) began in 1975 as a temporary program to return a portion of the Social Security tax paid by lower-income taxpayers (the credit was, and remains, calculated as a percentage of earned income, with no direct link to Social Security taxes paid by the tax filer), and was made permanent in 1978. In the 1990s, the program became a major component of federal efforts to reduce poverty, and is now the largest need-tested, anti-poverty cash entitlement program. Childless adults in 2011 (the latest year for which data are available) received an average EITC of $264, families with one child received an average EITC of $2,199, families with two children received an average EITC of $3,469, and families with three or more children received an average EITC of $3,750.

A low-income worker must file an annual income tax return to receive the EITC and meet certain requirements for income and age. A tax filer cannot be a dependent of another tax filer and must be a resident of the United States unless overseas because of military duty. The EITC is based on income and whether the tax filer has a qualifying child.

The EITC interacts with several nonrefundable federal tax credits to the extent lower-income workers can use the credits to reduce tax liability before the EITC. Income from the credit is not used to determine eligibility or benefits for need-tested programs.

The maximum earned income amounts, phase-out income levels, disqualifying investment income level, and maximum credit amounts are adjusted annually to reflect inflation. The actual amount of the credit a tax filer receives is determined by the tax filer’s earned income and number of qualifying children using these inflation adjusted parameters.


Suggested Citation
Falk, G. (2014). The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): An overview. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

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