Measuring the Distributional Impact of Taxation and Public Spending: The Practice of Fiscal Incidence Analysis
- Nora LustigNora LustigDepartment of Economics, Tulane University
Taxation and public spending are key policy levers the state has in its power to change the distribution of income determined both by market forces and institutions and the prevailing distribution of wealth and property. One of the most commonly used methods to measure the distributional impact of a country’s taxes and public spending is fiscal incidence analysis. Rooted in the field of public finance, fiscal incidence analysis is designed to measure who bears the burden of taxes and who receives the benefits of government spending, and who are the gainers and losers of particular tax reforms or changes to welfare programs.
Fiscal incidence analysis can be used to assess the redistributive impact of a fiscal system as a whole or changes of specific fiscal instruments. In particular, fiscal incidence analysis is used to address the following questions: Who bears the burden of taxation and who receives the benefits of public spending? How much income redistribution is being accomplished through taxation and public spending? What is the impact of taxation and public spending on poverty and the poor? How equalizing are specific taxes and government welfare programs? How progressive are spending on education and health? How effective are taxes and government spending in reducing inequality and poverty? Who are the losers and winners of tax and welfare programs reforms? A sample of key indicators meant to address these questions are discussed here. Real time analysis of winners and losers plays an important role in shaping the policy debate in a number of countries.
In practice, fiscal incidence analysis is the method utilized to allocate taxes and public spending to households so that one can compare incomes before taxes and transfers with incomes after them. Standard fiscal incidence analysis just looks at what is paid and what is received without assessing the behavioral responses that taxes and public spending may trigger on individuals or households. This is often referred to as the “accounting approach.” Although the theory is quite straightforward, its application can be fraught with complications. The salient ones are discussed here. While ignoring behavioral responses and general equilibrium effects is a limitation of the accounting approach, the effects calculated with this method are considered a reasonable approximation of the short-run welfare impact. Fiscal incidence analysis, however, can be designed to include behavioral responses as well as general equilibrium and intertemporal effects. This article focuses on the implementation of fiscal incidence analysis using the accounting approach.