• Nathaniel Hendren
  • Ben Sprung-Keyser


June 2023, Paper: "We estimate the returns to IRS audits of taxpayers across the income distribution. We find an additional $1 spent auditing taxpayers above the 90th income percentile yields more than $12 in revenue, while audits of below-median income taxpayers yield $5. We construct our estimates by drawing upon comprehensive internal accounting information and audit-level enforcement logs. We begin by estimating the average initial return to all audits of US taxpayers filing in 2010-2014. On average, $1 in audit spending initially raises $2.17 in revenue. Audits of high-income taxpayers are more costly, but the additional revenue raised more than offsets the costs. Audits of the 99-99.9th percentile have a 3.2:1 initial return; audits of the top 0.1% return 6.3:1. We then exploit the 40% audit reduction between tax years 2010 and 2014 to examine the returns to marginal audits. We find they exceed the returns to average audits. Revenues remain relatively unchanged but marginal costs fall below average costs due to economies of scale. Next, we use randomly selected audits to examine the impact of an initial audit on future revenue. This specific deterrence effect produces at least three times more revenue than the initial audit. Deterrence effects are relatively consistent across the income distribution. This results in the 12:1 return above the 90th percentile. We conclude by estimating the welfare consequences of audits using the MVPF framework and comparing audits to other revenue raising policies. We find that audits raise revenue at lower welfare cost..."